Keir Starmer has suggested that the local elections coming up on 6th May are some of the biggest in our history. But whilst the local elections in England are important- they always are- they pale in significance next to those that will be taking place on the same day for the Scottish Parliament. For the United Kingdom, these forthcoming Holyrood elections are of monumental importance. They will either demonstrate the strength of the Union and the commitment to a common British identity north of the border, or they will return a coalition of nationalists more committed than ever to dissolving that very Union.
What does this all mean for the Conservative Party? There is a view that the fate of Scotland and that of the party are somehow detachable. Some one in five Conservative voters would be pleased to see the back of Scotland, according to a YouGov poll. Of course, this is often connected to the opinion that the party would benefit from Scottish independence somehow: the Conservative position in England is effectively impregnable and Labour in the past has relied on Scottish seats to stand a chance in General Elections. Electorally, Scotland’s exit would be a boon for Conservatives.
This is, however, a false dichotomy, and a deeply flawed conception of the relationship between the party and the Union. There is a reason that our official title is the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’. The United Kingdom is not a contingency for us that may or may not be electorally advantageous- it is of foundational importance to the mission of our party. If we consider the entity that occupies pride and place in our party’s title to be dispensable, then we have lost sight of its very purpose.
It has become fashionable to describe the Conservatives pejoratively as the “English” Party. But as Disraeli declared to Scottish Tories in Edinburgh in 1867, the Conservatives must be the “national” party. Regardless of how much mythmaking one imagines there to be about Disraeli, generations of Conservatives since have believed fervently in the idea of an overarching national political community that binds rich and poor, labour and capital, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Conservatives do not glorify the nation-state (indeed, many Conservatives are deeply sceptical about it). But they do believe in One Nation over and above our particular differences to which we all belong. It is only when the British nation and its institutions flourish that the Tory party can be “triumphant”, Disraeli wrote. The health of the Conservative Party cannot be divorced from the health of the Union.
How, then, to approach these vital Holyrood elections, and the broader challenge of independence? Lots of words have been spent on the subject, but here I will concern myself with a few principles that might guide our arguments in the coming weeks and beyond.
Firstly, Scottish identity, as distinctive from English and British identity, is a political fact. It is deeply historical, proud, and is not going away. And nor should it: the point about the British Union and its successes has been its inclusivity- its capacity to contain and incorporate the various national identities of the British Isles. The unification of Scotland and England was via an Act of Union, not conquest. British and Scottish identity are not mutually exclusive or antagonistic but can co-exist and have coexisted for hundreds of years. The personal stories of numerous British politicians are deeply intertwined with Scotland. The Conservative party itself has produced two Scottish Prime Ministers. Have we done enough to substantiate that ideal in recent years? No. We have given into a narrative that Scottishness can only be understood in opposition to and in conflict with Britishness, and we have let Scottish nationalists make this case effectively unchallenged in England too. That Scottish history is a decided part of the British national story is what needs to be underlined; being Scottish does not come at the expense of being British.
Secondly, we must be frank that Brexit is not only the most salient context for the current discussion about the Union, but it is also the most difficult. Much has been made about the fact that Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in 2016, whilst England and Wales voted to leave. Whilst this is relevant, I am more interested in something else. In particular, there is a curious similarity between the arguments made for leaving the European Union and those touted by Scottish nationalists- that decision-making power ought to be brought closer to those affected by it. We must not be ignorant of these parallels, because if we are, in the course of making the case for the United Kingdom’s place in the world outside the European Union, we might also inadvertently cede ground to those that would drive the British Union apart.
Instead, we ought to identify what is unique about the United Kingdom. That it constitutes the most successful and enduring political association in the world. That it has underscored the security of these isles for over three hundred years and allowed us as a collective to project our power globally. But most importantly, that it is based on a distinctive, shared historical experience- a historical experience shaped by decisions made by a Parliament that hosts representatives from every corner of the United Kingdom. And in this, a Scottish departure from the British Union is not comparable to a British departure from the European Union. It is like comparing the breakup of a three-month relationship to the breakup of a family.
Brexit holds lessons for how the fight for the Union should be pursued tactically too. One thing the referendum campaign made clear is that you cannot combat arguments about identity and values with economic rationale. That is not to say economic arguments are not important: it is vital to make the point that Scottish independence would be immensely economically damaging. But you cannot counter arguments about what it means to be Scottish with spreadsheets. That’s the political equivalent of trying to play someone at chess when they are actually playing chequers. So yes, let’s talk about fiscal transfers and the economy. But let’s not confuse what is a familial union with a transactional arrangement. And let’s not allow nationalists to monopolise the language of identity and belonging.
There is a creeping fatalism in arguments about the Union that also needs to be challenged. This comes in a few forms: there is the more macro-theoretical argument that political fragmentation is a general trend in politics, and that nation-state disintegration is therefore somehow inevitable. But this idea is just as farcical, just as ahistorical as that put forward by some European federalists for the inexorable progress of supranational consolidation and integration. The other form that this fatalism takes is that the pressure for another referendum on Scottish independence has made it unavoidable. I reject this, but say it is so. Even then, when that referendum takes place and how it takes place are political choices. Agency and choice run all the way through these debates about our Union. That the tensions and stresses on it feel overbearing at present is the consequence of political choices taken by those in positions of responsibility, not of some inexorable historical progression.
One of the most harmful choices made has been to fight the SNP on their own terms. Devolution has given plenty of power to nationalist majorities in Holyrood, but they have not been made responsible for it. Frequently, when the SNP has failed to deliver for Scottish citizens, it has redirected blame towards Westminster. SNP failings in government have been used paradoxically and disingenuously to help strengthen their case for independence; the reality is that nationalists have been incentivised to make sure the devolved system does not work in order to argue that only independence can solve the problems that Scotland faces. This is nonsense; not only is the Scottish government competent to do a huge range of things already, but Scotland also benefits greatly from Barnett Formula calculations for the allocation of public funds. It is the fault of the nationalist government in Holyrood that powers and resources have been poorly utilised. Yes, there is a conversation to be had about the constitutional settlement between the four nations of the United Kingdom, and how it should change. But a government is only ever as good as its ministers, and Scotland is no exception.
Finally, Conservatives need to work alongside Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats if and when the opportunity arises. Douglas Ross recently wrote to the parties’ respective leaders to suggest exactly this in response to the launch of Alex Salmond’s new ‘Alba’ party, which has been established explicitly in order to help return a coalition for independence. The British Union is not a Tory invention; it is far older, not only than our own party, but any existing political party for that matter. It is, as Burke might put it, something that binds our generation with those that went before, and those that will come after us. The Conservative and Unionist Party is sworn to protect that Union, and if this means collaborating with those that we often do not see eye to eye with, then so be it.
Scottish nationalists would have you believe that just because you live in a different part of the United Kingdom, that you are unable to comment on the future of our Union. This is rubbish. It is the right of every British citizen to make the case for the country that they call home. That case needs to be made louder than ever.
If you are interested in getting involved in the campaign in Scotland, please get in touch. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.