Scottish unionists like Richard Leonard and Ruth Davidson are becoming irrelevant to the powers that be in their parties and face the same fate as American Loyalists in the US War of Independence and the Irish Ascendancy during the creation of the Free State, writes Kenny MacAskill.
Many years ago, I was visiting a Church of Ireland Cathedral in Cork. Similar to other grand churches in Scotland or England, there was still something amiss that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on. Looking around I realised what it was. Plaques and inscriptions lauding the battles and triumphs of the British Empire were the same as across the Irish Sea, except that they ceased in 1922, the establishment of the Free State bringing to an end the Ascendancy’s power and indeed their numbers declined thereafter.
When the British decided it was time to go, they left their cousins without a backward glance and sometimes that could be brutal. Chris Ryder’s excellent book on the history of the RUC begins with the tale of its precursor, the RIC. As the Free State was established, Winston Churchill made provision for British forces to be taken north or marched to the treaty ports that had been retained. No such arrangements were made for the RIC who were left to their fate. Some faced retribution as trains heading north were stopped and summary justice meted out.
For in Ireland, as in every outpost of the Empire, when the British state decided it couldn’t or didn’t want to stay it, it simply left. It cared not one whit for those who had pledged undying faith in them and had shown loyalty to them. What mattered for them was the strategic interests of the central state and the periphery was expendable.
The loss of the American colonies was likewise. For in the late 18th century the perceived interest of the British Empire was in sugar in the West Indies, not the relatively undeveloped colonies in America. Ships and troops that could have supported Cornwallis’s army were kept guarding Jamaica and other islands from the French and Spanish. The colonies were dispensable and Loyalists were simply brought home or shipped up to Canada.
All that shows that the previously unthinkable can be become the possible, if not the probable. Brexit’s proving a potential rubicon for these islands. But it’s not Britain withdrawing from its Empire but England pulling out of the United Kingdom that’s now the issue. The strategic interests of the political iconoclasts, pursuing not just Brexit but embarking on reviving the glories of Olde England, are vastly different to those which went before.
Alliance with Scotland was necessary back then for security as the Empire was being forged. It’s not in the new globalised world they now seek to operate in, under the wing, if not the vassalage, of the USA. Despite the warnings of party grandees of both left and right, the Union’s falling apart and they just don’t care. They neither have strategic interest in, nor sentiment for, their unionist allies.
Last week’s humiliation of Richard Leonard followed the side-lining of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Labour leader having neither input nor control as civil war broke out on his turf, mirroring the impotence of his Tory counterpart who faced humiliation as challenger after challenger to Boris Johnson fell by the wayside.
It’s a long way from the summer of 2014 when politicians streamed north to pledge their undying loyalty to the Union and protest their love for Scotland. The warm embrace now replaced by cold disdain and even some contempt, the “love-in” with Ruth Davidson for saving the Union contrasting with the removal of David Mundell as Scottish Secretary for desperately striving to do likewise. The latter’s replacement, by a man that few in Scotland can name, was evidence of the adage that the post is now definitely Westminster’s man in Scotland, not Scotland’s representative in Cabinet.
Likewise, with Labour. Neither consulted nor considered, Richard Leonard has shown how peripheral the Scottish party is. Long gone are the days of the Celtic fringe apparently calling the shots. Instead it’s what London wants that matters. Even Tom Watson coming north was more to do with the current UK party’s divisions between left and right than seeking to forge closer links with Scotland. If Labour unionists think he really cares about them, they’ve got another thing coming.
Rather than growing in stature with devolution, the Scottish wings of English parties have shrunk in influence. Even establishing separate Scottish parties won’t be enough to save them. For it’s the interests of England that now matter and that set the agenda.
Scottish outliers and representatives will be as irrelevant and expendable as once were the Irish Ascendancy and the American Loyalists. They’ve not yet been abandoned but it’s certainly been made clear who’ll decide upon their fate. And it won’t be for them to choose their destiny.