Don't believe the hype, the Union remains in some degree of trouble - Joyce McMillan

A leading UK journal of political and economic affairs sports an image on its cover of a Highland cow standing in a bleak mountain landscape, blinded by its woolly coat.
An 'All Under One Banner' rally in BannockburnAn 'All Under One Banner' rally in Bannockburn
An 'All Under One Banner' rally in Bannockburn

“Scotland’s holiday from reality” says the text; and indeed, we can see a unicorn’s horn photoshopped onto the head of the Highland cow, and a little pinkish rainbow in the sky behind it.

There follows a piece essentially berating Scottish voters (or half of them) for being “intoxicated” by populist nationalism since 2014, and made “giddy” by Nicola Sturgeon’s alleged claim to be both populist and progressive. There’s also a triumphant assertion that the wheels have now “come off the SNP camper van”; and a litany of criticism of the quality and competence of Scottish government, rounded off with the observation that Westminster should now take back control, start “policing the boundaries” of devolution, and play a stronger role in monitoring how Scotland spends its money.

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Nor, of course, is The Economist (the journal in question) alone in taking this tone towards Scotland. It is currently widespread and popular among Conservatives at Westminster and their supporters, and is also popular among that small but highly visible minority of Scots who never wanted devolution in the first place. And the people who adopt these views invariably frame themselves as “friends of the Union”; although a majority of Scots might conclude that if they love and esteem Scotland, and want to remain in a harmonious Union with it, then they have a very strange way of showing it.

For any realistic analysis of these arguments is bound to reveal how far they are based on false assumptions about recent and current Scottish politics. The first mistake is to categorise the rise in support for the SNP since the mid-2000’s as primarily a “populist” movement, an early forerunner of Trumpian MAGA politics, or the wave of xenophobic and anti-immigration sentiment that helped fuel the Brexit campaign.

In fact, surveys have shown that there was no particular increase in the sense of Scottish national identity during that time; and informed observers know that the switch towards the SNP after 2005 was largely a matter of former Labour voters looking for a more convincing social democratic future than that offered by Tony Blair’s Labour Party. From the perspective of Westminster, the idea of Scotland as a potential Nordic-style social democracy may seem like mere fantasy.

For those of us who live here, though, it is far harder to ignore the small and successful European states which surround us - Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Denmark - and the powerful example they offer of a possible alternative future for Scotland, given its similar population, and often greater natural resources.

The second mistake in this analysis therefore concerns the assumption that the SNP, and its vision of independence, can easily be killed off by a few weeks of over-the-top news stories involving its party finances. Nor will all Scottish voters be impressed by a blanket assertion of poor performance on the part of the Scottish Government; indeed the frequent allegation that Scottish Government is obsessed with independence, and therefore particularly incompetent in the administration of public services, is in no way supported by the facts, and often directly contradicted by them.

All of which brings us to the final and most striking feature of the arguments advanced by those who want to “rein in” devolution in its current form; and that is the central assumption that once Scotland recovers from its flirtation with the SNP, there is some calm and supremely rational Westminster norm of governance to which the nation should return, without delay - an idea which, at best, invites some stern questions about which version of the UK some of these opinion-makers have been living in, over the last eight years.

In this analysis, the Scottish Government is berated for poor investment and productivity, and low growth, when the same blight, now exacerbated by Brexit, has plagued large areas of the UK economy for the last 15 years. It is accused of presiding over some areas which are “shockingly poor”, as if many areas elsewhere in the UK were not, in fact, even poorer.

It is accused of wasting public money by supporters of the government which, under a highly questionable system, commissioned not millions but billions of pounds worth of worthless equipment and services during the pandemic. It is accused of irrationality by supporters of the party which, in an ecstasy of ideological extremism, recently gave us the short and shocking Premiership of Liz Truss; and it is accused of lacking a robust culture of democratic accountability by a government now passing one measure after another which makes protest more difficult, sidelines parliament from major decisions, and gives “Henry VIII” powers to ministers.

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All of which perhaps goes some way towards explaining why many Scottish voters are not, after all, so easily persuaded that independence is a foolish fantasy. In recent weeks, the increasingly high-handed and inconsistent attitude of the Westminster government to devolved legislation has riled not only Scottish ministers, but the mild-mannered Labour First Minister of Wales; while voters in Northern Ireland have delivered a damning verdict on the province’s Unionist parties, and the UK government which they support.

The Union, in other words, remains in some degree of trouble - a situation that will only be exacerbated by the litany of tired metropolitan stereotypes, patronising attitudes, and outright factual inaccuracies reflected in the arguments of the new generation of “muscular unionists”. And so long as this failure of respect, understanding, and basic statecraft persists among so many at Westminster, voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will reserve the right to keep questioning, in all sobriety, whether the Union as currently conceived and run offers the best future they can hope for; and to vote accordingly.



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