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Artillery Row

The SNP is winning. What is the plan to stop them?

Nicola Sturgeon runs rings around her Scottish opponents. But are there stronger adversaries in Whitehall?

Is coronavirus eating away at the United Kingdom? The opinion polls suggest a major shift of sentiment is underway in Scotland where voters are turning decisively in favour of breaking-up the Union.

The shift was already underway before the effects of Covid-19 were manifest, with successive polls conducted in January and February showing that the nationalists had closed the gap with the unionists and were neck-and-neck. Much of that shift was attributed to Scots who had voted Remain in the EU referendum despairing at Boris Johnson’s December general election victory and the UK’s resulting departure from the EU in January.

But polling since March (when Covid-19 became the dominant concern) has tracked an acceleration in the trend. Those now switching from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ on Scottish independence are proportionately drawn from both former Leave and Remain voters. They have watched Nicola Sturgeon’s performance leading Scotland’s response to coronavirus and they like what they have seen. The crisis has shown that devolution is real – that Scots can run their own affairs and make a success of it.

The consequence is that after more than thirteen years in power at Holyrood, the SNP stands at the threshold of being more popular than ever. According to last weekend’s Sunday Times/Panelbase survey, 55 percent of Scots will vote SNP in next May’s constituency vote for the Scottish parliament. That would be, by any measure, a phenomenal achievement, lending credence to the SNP’s demand that if the Party gets more than half of the vote, Westminster must concede Scotland a second independence referendum. On the weekend’s polling, 54% of Scots now say that, given the chance, they will vote to break-up the three-century old Union.

What has happened? Unionists rub their eyes in incredulity. They are bewildered that most Scots think Sturgeon’s response to the coronavirus has been so much more effective than Boris Johnson’s (having made similar mistakes especially over care homes, Scotland has some of the worst per capita Covid statistics in Europe – but just fractionally better than England’s which is the only matrix that matters). Reassuring, calm and authoritative at her daily televised briefings, Scotland’s First Minister gives a masterclass in podium politics. This is what Scots see and Unionists have so far made no impression in convincing them that their senses deceive them.

How should unionists respond? Should they step-up their efforts to get fellow Scots to view Sturgeon’s Covid-19 response as more style than substance? If, henceforth, they devote greater energies in trying to point out Sturgeon’s multiple coronavirus failings, unionists risk appearing unpatriotic snipers at a First Minister who Scots appear to see as a having the goodness of Mary Seacole with the steeliness of Florence Nightingale. From Westminster, Boris Johnson continues to parrot the line that, actually, the four nations are cooperating very well. But the perception – played-up by Sturgeon – that the devolved governments are no longer being properly consulted hurts Scottish pride and spells danger.

Unionists have much else to grumble about. The unprecedented support being offered companies and employees in Scotland is provided through the enormous fire-power of the UK Treasury which has channelled more than £10 billion to Scotland’s fight against coronavirus. Little political capital is being made of it: unlike Sturgeon’s articulate performances on how she is coordinating the response, the funding that makes it possible does not get its own daily press conference.

a First Minister who Scots appear to see as a having the goodness of Mary Seacole with the steeliness of Florence Nightingale

With their every offer of assistance twisted into an insult for being insufficient, the unionists have no answer. To hear the SNP leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, address Boris Johnson at PMQs every Wednesday is to behold a weekly venting of contemptuous fury directed at a man who responds with bemused indifference. The tirade is relentless and unforgiving and the prime minister’s good humoured replies seems to only encourage more of it. Even the single biggest cheque ever offered from Whitehall to Scottish employees is about to be “weaponised” against the giver. The SNP has begun complaining that Scotland will have to end the furlough scheme when the UK Treasury calls time on it at the end of October. They demand that Scotland gets its own sovereign nation borrowing powers to keep the scheme going. Anything less is England selling out on Scotland. Jobs losses will be London’s fault.

If they do nothing else, crises are supposed to bring nations together in the shared ordeal. But one of devolution’s effects has been to focus a sense of fellowship within each of the four nations, rather than collectively as a united kingdom. The former Secretary-of-State for Scotland, George Robertson, was an estimable politician and public servant, but his 1995 prediction that “devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead” has never looked less sagacious.

This was not supposed to happen. Devolution was designed to offer Scots (and the Welsh and Northern Irish) the best of both worlds – a disproportionately large claim on the greater financial resources of the UK alongside the self-government to pursue their own course in how to spend it. Instead it is resembling the worst of both worlds for those seeking to preserve the Union. The threads that hold the Union together now resemble subterranean cables powering on the ground nationalist politicians to transmit energy.

Unionists do not have a solution to this reality. Some, most prominently Gordon Brown, argue that the process has failed because it has not yet gone far enough. This is to see the UK as a benevolent fairy godmother, forever dishing out ever greater wishes with ever fewer preconditions. Where does this process end? Brown maintains that England would not tire of the process of funding rolling divergence because England too should be regionalised. What is not clear is why Scots would cease to want independence from “London” just because Leeds and Birmingham also had a bit more autonomy.

Unsurprisingly Brown’s line of argument appeals less to Tory unionists. But they too seek to win back Scottish hearts with money. Where Brown believes greater Whitehall funding of the wholly devolved welfare state is the answer, the Johnson government seeks to splash cash on specific projects and infrastructure, but to do so with as much red-white-and-blue as the advertising budget permits.

The threads that hold the Union together now resemble subterranean cables powering on the ground nationalist politicians to transmit energy.

When Boris Johnson became prime minister last July he created a new role – Minister for the Union, which he awarded to himself. The irony is not lost on nationalists, who regard the antipathy the easy-going Johnson generates among no-nonsense Scots as one of their trump cards. But more significant may prove to be the recent creation of a Union Policy Implementation Committee chaired by the Cabinet Office Secretary, Michael Gove. The other members of this new cabinet committee are the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, alongside Alister Jack, Simon Hart and Brandon Lewis (respectively Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

About twenty Cabinet Office officials have been assigned to support this Committee along with those in Downing Street’s “Union unit.” Gove’s committee seeks to bring strategic oversight to how the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (a post-Brexit creation that dolls out money previously allocated by the EU) can prioritise those projects that bind the UK’s four nations together. A quick hit will be to ensure that the propaganda value the EU formerly got by insisting that the projects it funded came with large signs proclaiming EU largesse will continue, but with the EU flag replaced by that of an older Union. Doubtless these will be quickly defaced. But not every fair-minded passer-by warms to vandalism.

There is also a recognition that Johnson’s focus on expensive infrastructure projects needs to have four nation integration at its heart. The most symbolic (and improbable) is the prime minister’s mooted bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland. But there are less challenging projects that can be undertaken at a fraction of the trouble, among them what appears to be Johnson’s commitment to finally upgrade the A1 between Northumberland and Scotland. It is remarkable that the main road connecting the two capitals of London and Edinburgh is not an unbroken motorway. The best that can be said is that “dualling” it across the border is at least a belated symbol that England’s interest in Scotland does not peter out at the Tyne Tunnel. A more ambitious project would be to have HS2 connecting Edinburgh and Newcastle. It would halve the distance time between these two great cities to under 45 minutes.

That the SNP administration also supports – demands even – better cross-border communication demonstrates that they, at least, do not imagine that more tarmac and rail paves the preservation of the Union. In any event, if Sturgeon surges to the Holyrood landslide victory predicted by the opinion polls next May then she will be proclaiming her mandate for a referendum long before these projects are complete.

More immediate problems for unionists are that their leaders in Scotland (Jackson Carlaw for the Conservatives; Richard Leonard for Labour; Willie Rennie for the Lib Dems) have not collectively a fraction of the personality, recognition or political gifts of Nicola Sturgeon. In a battle of advocates, she could take on the lot of them in a manner reminiscent of the Samuri-sword wielding Uma Thurman slicing apart the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill: Volume One.

The Tories had one leader in Scotland who was not afraid to scrap with the First Minister, but at a time when Ruth Davidson was wanting to spend more time with her new-born child, she did not have the will to also defend Boris Johnson and his Brexit. Her most likely next political move is to the House of Lords which is not the best place to stage a Scottish political comeback.

In this week’s Critic podcast, one of the most thoughtful of the pro-union strategists, Kevin Hague, chairman of These Islands, shares his assessment of why unionists need to major on the economic arguments as a higher priority than contesting the cultural/emotional ground which nationalists have made their own and upon which they want to stage the fight. Ultimately, it’s about where the money is coming from to pay for the grand plans, especially since North Sea oil is not the cash cow the SNP projected it to be back in 2014.

At the moment, half of Scots either do not appear to notice – or affect not to notice – who is paying to keep the show on the road, but at some stage the effects of Covid-19 will fade and reality will supposedly dawn. Problematically, that may, or may not, come this side of the next referendum result. Reflecting on what has gone wrong for his cause since it won in 2014, Hague begins tellingly with, “how long have you got?”

The time unionists have left to put it right is not quite being flashed-up by the linesman. But they are leaving it late to mount a convincing counter-attack and all their reserves are on the field.

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