Scotland's unionists should avoid constitutional navel gazing that just builds support for independence – John McLellan

There’s nothing quite like an eve of conference by-election victory to gee up the faithful and, as Scottish Conservtives gather this weekend for the party’s virtual spring conference, the toast will be lawyer Jenny Linehan, yesterday announced as the new Leaderdale and Melrose councillor in Borders.

Boris Johnson and Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, seen at the Roseisle Distillery, need to focus on conveying a sense of purpose and of a UK which will deliver and deliver fast, says John McLellan (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Boris Johnson and Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, seen at the Roseisle Distillery, need to focus on conveying a sense of purpose and of a UK which will deliver and deliver fast, says John McLellan (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA)

A fairly solid Conservative part of the world, it has to be said, but to increase the vote by eight per cent is no mean achievement, signifying a hardening of attitudes as the May elections approach, and further evidence that the forecast late last year of an overwhelming SNP majority and a seemingly unstoppable march towards independence was a high-water mark.

Two polls this week continued the downward trend; the growing mistrust of the SNP hierarchy and its evasive approach to the Salmond inquiry and the UK government’s fast and efficient Covid vaccine programme are having an effect.

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The Scotsman’s Savanta/ComRes poll predicted the SNP would fall one short of a majority, but before Conservatives get excited, they would lose a seat. The pro-independence Greens could return ten MSPs.

A YouGov poll for The Times indicated an overall SNP majority of 13, but showed the vote continuing to drop, down four points to 52 per cent in constituencies and two to 45 per cent on the regional lists. Last weekend’s Sunday Times Panelbase survey put the SNP down eight on the both constituency and regional votes since last summer.

Without being defeatist, the gap is too big for there to be a realistic chance of the SNP not remaining the single biggest party on May 7, but there is an opportunity to ensure the minority is by a lot more than one or two seats.

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On independence, The Scotsman’s polling was 51:49 in favour of No, when don’t knows are removed, compared to 53:47 for Yes in February. The Times survey found a majority for the Union of 51:49, compared to the opposite when it asked the question in November. Panelbase, which has always been at the higher end of results for independence, had No ahead for the first time, up three points to 47 and Yes down the same to 46, with seven per cent undecided.

And with YouGov showing only 36 per cent believe there should be a re-run of 2014 this year, whatever sabre-rattling for the faithful from the SNP leadership there may be, there will be no quick independence referendum this year. The sense that some sort of normality is round the corner means that any enthusiasm for the uncertainty another poll will bring is ebbing by the day.

Unfortunately, there is a sense in some unionist quarters that nationalism can firmly be put in its box by more constitutional reform, particularly ex-Labour leader Gordon Brown who has continued to beat the drum for a federal model which only political anoraks and Lib Dems support.

Equally unfortunately, new Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar fell into the trap with his “Broken Britain” claim the day after he was elected.

“I think people sitting in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and Cardiff will feel the same disconnect that we feel sitting in Glasgow or those in other parts of Scotland feel with Boris Johnson and the UK,” he said.

Attacking Boris Johnson is expected from a Labour leader, talking down Britain itself is catnip for nationalists, who are quick to say the UK it is not just broken but irreparable and the only way forward is independence.

The answer for Labour politicians is not to argue that Britain or devolution is broken but to take a leaf out of Alex Salmond’s book and argue that it’s the leadership which is kaput. In Scotland there is plenty of evidence. Even Alex Salmond says so.

Mr Sarwar should be on a safe-distanced tour of every forgotten, deprived community in Scotland to say Labour took them for granted, but has learnt their lesson and will do so again.

He can say the SNP has learnt nothing from Labour and is taking them for granted now. Again, there’s plenty of evidence to back that up, with SNP politicians smugly pointing to the polls as evidence of their invincibility.

Mr Sarwar doesn’t need to persuade everyone, but just four or five per cent will be enough to make sure that Holyrood returns to the balanced chamber Donald Dewar envisaged and the bitter years of secessionist division can become history.

In an article titled “Union with a Purpose”, Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins argues the UK needs to reassert and reform, prioritising direct investment in infrastructure and cities and to lose the inhibitions that has allowed the SNP to claim every positive development as theirs.

“Merely telling Scots that the Union is valuable to them is not good enough. We have to show them, and we cannot afford to be shy about it,” he wrote.

Here in Edinburgh, the UK government role in sealing the £1.3bn City Deal was at best reluctantly mumbled by the civic SNP leadership, and direct investment leads to shrieks of outrage that devolution is being dismantled. Scotland must be one of the few places where government investment is regarded as a threat because of who’s spending it.

So as Conservatives prop up their laptops for the Prime Minister’s conference speech tomorrow, and the discussions with Scottish leaders Douglas Ross and Ruth Davidson which follow, what they need is that sense of purpose, of a UK which will deliver and deliver fast, not a haggle about devolution, federalism or any other job-creation scheme for the political classes.

Talk of “democratic renewal” and “national conversations” are meaningless twaddle for people who just want their lives to improve. Constitutional navel gazing is the straw with which the independence house was built, but unionists of all hues can get on with the job of building a new one with bricks.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor

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