Brian Monteith: Are Scottish unionists beginning to get their act together?

While political focus in the last week has naturally been given over to the Prime Minister’s reshuffle there have been other political developments that should not be ignored, for they suggest that Scottish unionists are beginning to get their act together and at last go on the offensive.

Jackson Carlaw on becoming leader of the Scots Tories. Picture: PA

The most visible news was the election of Jackson Carlaw as leader of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party, to give it its Sunday title. After a spirited campaign by his opponent Michelle Ballantyne, Carlaw in the end won comfortably with a 75% to 25% share of the members’ votes cast. The party should be thankful to Ballantyne for ensuring there was a contest, not least for allowing Carlaw to now say with authority he has an unequivocal mandate to run the party. She also gave voice to concerns that have been building up over recent years about party management. Carlaw will surely want to address these rather than exacerbate them.

While the candidates did their best to present themselves as different and thus offer a genuine choice, the reality is they had far more in common than what divided them. For the party this is a good thing as members now have to unite behind Carlaw’s leadership and turn their attention to the most important challenge facing them – defeating the SNP in the 2021 elections.

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Their first goal will be to prevent the SNP having an overall majority like that won by Alex Salmond in 2011, but then lost by Nicola Sturgeon in 2016. Despite the appalling performance of our public services under the management of the SNP government, recent polling suggests it could yet win such a huge mandate. While possible I think it unlikely, for once the electorate begins to consider the SNP’s record in detail its failure must begin to pay dividends for the opposition. Also fundamental to the debate is how the dominance of Brexit will recede, allowing more oxygen to be given to the scrutinising the performance of SNP ministers.

The second goal must then be to lay the ground for a new administration that locks the SNP out of government even if Sturgeon wins the most seats. An alternative minority administration that enjoys a comfort and supply arrangement would be the most likely route – as neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats will want to even hint at a coalition, never mind formalise one. In an effort to kill-off such a prospect the SNP will seek to demonise any party offering to work with dreaded Tories – or “Tory Scum” as the infamous banner that graces nationalist marches brands over half a million Scottish voters.

In response the argument has to be put that it was the Tories who provided a comfort and supply arrangement to Salmond and Sturgeon between 2007-11. If the Tories were good enough for the SNP then, why should it not be good enough for Carlaw to do the same with other parties if it’s best for the for the country?

It is impossible to say what role the Labour Party will play in all of these developments; too much depends on how its UK leadership election works out, but there are other encouraging signs that offer hope to unionists.

Yesterday Scottish Business UK, the pro-Union business group backed by hundreds of Scottish businesses and including many household names, published a new paper advocating a more positive and assertive approach by the UK government. Included in the paper Strengthening the Union: A Framework for Business Success were proposals for a UK Department of the Union which would have grant-aiding powers to assist directly initiatives that will help the UK’s cohesiveness. These might be community based or infrastructure projects – but they would clearly demonstrate and say on the tin they have been delivered by the UK.

Other ideas included an Office for Budget Responsibility for the Union that would bring more transparency to encourage both accountability and value for money in public spending. Interestingly it is argued the new OBR could become a force for helping achieve UK-wide spending commitments in Scotland as well challenging them. The paper also considered issues from taxation to fisheries, cultural exchange within the UK (is it not sad this now has to be suggested?) to migration. Some may fly, others probably will not, but the fact that a business group is bringing forward positive ideas that can add value to being in the UK illustrates how the UK’s status quo is never set in stone.

Indeed if there is one difference why the UK’s advocates won the independence referendum of 2014 but the Europhiles lost that of 2016 is the UK is evolving and decentralising by devolving power out to nations and cities – whereas the EU is taking more and more power for itself.

Other unionist organisations are also stirring; Scotland in Union, the largest campaign group defending the Union launched a Valentine video message last week and another offering ten reasons Scotland is stronger in the UK. That might not seem especially unusual (is that not what campaign groups do?) but the adoption of a positive rather than negative tone represents a change in approach away from the project fear of the past and, I believe, will begin to pay dividends.

Likewise the meetings being organised around the country by the unionist lobbying group Scotland Matters demonstrates the level of activism outside party circles is growing. True, such events are not at the levels of Yes activism, but that’s not the appropriate comparison, the point is no such activities were even being considered by unionists before the last referendum in 2014. This time Unionists of all parties or none are mobilising in advance of the 2021 elections to head off nationalism before any referendum.

Later this weekend in Newcastle-upon-Tyne the discussion forum “These Islands” holds a two day conference to explores issues of culture and identity that are rarely given enough thought by unionists.

The growth of such activities points to a more confident and less complacent approach from unionists be they large or small “U”. It shows a willingness to do grown-up politics, to have adult and reasoned debate away from the obscenities and hatred spouted at marches, worn on T-shirts and sprayed across social media that too many nationalists have descended into.

All of Scotland’s pro-British parties can tap into this new wave of unionist optimism – and then maybe learn to work together.

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org