The greatest single danger to this government is the state of the Union. Prime ministers can survive many things, but not the break-up of the country they lead.
No. 10 has a plan to avoid this: it simply won’t allow a Scottish independence referendum this parliament. No legal referendum can take place without Westminster’s consent and it will be declined on the grounds that a generation has not elapsed since the ‘once in a generation vote’ in 2014.
This approach, however, cannot change the fact that the Union is now in even graver danger than it was during that campaign. In recent weeks, the polls have consistently shown independence ahead. Scottish Unionists are downhearted. When I asked one of the most impressive figures from 2014 how things were going, the answer came simply: ‘It’s over. The horse has bolted.’
Such pessimism might be an over-reaction to bad polls, but it is worrying how convinced some Unionists are that any second referendum would be lost. Downing Street’s refusal to grant one in this parliament could come under immense pressure after the Scottish parliament elections next year. If the Scottish National party wins an outright majority on a pro-IndyRef 2 platform, it will be hard to reject a request from Holyrood for another vote. A generation might not have elapsed, but an awful lot has happened in the past six years.
It would be particularly difficult to reject such a request if the Scottish Tories had spent the campaign urging people to vote for them to stop a second independence referendum. When I put this point to one secretary of state, the instant reply was: ‘Well, they must be told not to do that.’
Other senior Tories share this sentiment. There is a growing view in London that the best way to avoid a Catalonia-style situation is for the Scottish Tories to be encouraged to campaign on domestic issues so that the UK government can credibly say the Holyrood elections weren’t about whether or not to have a second referendum. One Boris Johnson ally who will play an important role in discussions with the Scottish party tells me ‘It would be a folly to make it about the Union’ and that the campaign is a ‘great opportunity to shine a light on the fact that they’ve failed on education. Not enough is made of their failures in domestic policy’. In a sign of how seriously the Tories are taking the issue, Isaac Levido — who ran the Conservatives’ successful general election effort last year — has been carrying out work on what arguments would work best in Scotland.
The obvious problem with this approach is that the constitution has been the Scottish Tories’ strongest card in recent years. Their revival was based not just on Ruth Davidson’s energetic leadership but on their position as the most unambiguously Unionist party. Jackson Carlaw, the new leader of the Scottish Tories, has little of Davidson’s panache. A campaign led by him in which the Scottish Tories unilaterally disarmed on the constitutional question would not end well for the party. But according to colleagues, Carlaw is also much more inclined to listen to London than Davidson, who was keen to plough her own furrow. So, if Conservative Campaign Headquarters requests that he downplays the prospect of a referendum, he is unlikely to reject the request outright.
Influential Scottish Tories fear that repeatedly saying a referendum won’t happen could end up ‘derisking’ the prospect of another SNP government and so could lead to an increased vote for the Nationalists. But one possible compromise is a campaign based around ‘priorities’, making the case that even though Westminster won’t grant a referendum an SNP administration would spend its time agitating for one rather than attending to the many matters that are actually devolved to Holyrood.
But whatever the Scottish Tories say in the campaign, it will be hard to refuse to engage on the issue of a referendum if the SNP wins an outright majority. The SNP will be able to frame this as London denying Scotland the choice that it voted for.
One of the few consolations for Unionists at the moment is that proper attention is now being paid to the issue in both Westminster and Whitehall. This is as welcome as it is overdue. Many of the problems in the management of the Covid crisis have been caused by Whitehall not properly understanding what is devolved, and what is not. For example, Downing Street failed to appreciate that a quarantine for those arriving in the UK couldn’t simply be put in place by Westminster. Instead, it would have to be agreed by the devolved administrations as it was being done under a health regulation, and that is a devolved matter.
The pandemic has served to highlight just how many things are now devolved. The sense that the Scottish government has used its powers well during this crisis, a sense that isn’t entirely borne out by the facts, has boosted voters’ confidence that Scotland can do things differently — and better — than the rest of the UK. But what this misses is how an independent Scotland would not have been able to muster anywhere near the same economic response as the UK government has done. In the early years of independence at least, it wouldn’t have had its own currency and central bank — which would have severely restricted its options.
The next skirmish between Westminster and Holyrood will be over the internal market bill. The SNP will claim that the UK government is attempting a power grab; they know that if they can make it Nicola’s government versus Boris’s they can win that argument in Scotland’s court of public opinion. In fact, the bill is a sensible measure about ensuring that Scottish doctors can still work in England and vice versa after Brexit and other such things, but the UK government has failed to properly make this argument. One exasperated Scottish Tory complains of a ‘sheer lack of attention. We don’t roll the pitch’.
Devolution was meant to kill nationalism stone dead. On that basis the current settlement has clearly failed. Yet, however much of a mistake it may have been, it is hard to see how it is politically feasible to roll it back. It might well be time for the UK government to start thinking about whether a federal model could best keep the United Kingdom together.
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