Scottish independence might seem unstoppable, but unionists must show the fighting spirit of General Foch – John McLellan

My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking… so reported the French general Ferdinand Foch to his superior Marshall Joffre as he ordered a counter-offensive at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914.

With support for Scottish independence rising and Brexit, deal or no deal, to start having real-world effects from 31 December, politics is beginning to feel a bit like life in the trenches for John McLellan (Picture: PA)
With support for Scottish independence rising and Brexit, deal or no deal, to start having real-world effects from 31 December, politics is beginning to feel a bit like life in the trenches for John McLellan (Picture: PA)

The Germans had invaded Belgium on August 4 and by the end of the month the position looked hopeless, with British commander Sir John French planning the retreating British Expeditionary Force’s evacuation until ordered by Lord Kitchener to hold the line.

It would not have felt like it for the soldiers in the hell of the trenches over the following four years, but First Marne turned out to be one of the most decisive battles of WW1 because by September 13 the combined French and British armies had halted the seemingly unstoppable German advance. Some historians argue it was the most decisive of all, because only six weeks into the conflict it ensured Germany had to fight on two fronts, with German commander Helmuth von Moltke reputedly telling the Kaiser the war was already lost.

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After this week’s Ipsos-Mori poll for STV puts support for independence at 58 per cent, the SNP’s march towards its ultimate goal might seem as unstoppable as the German invasion in August 1914, and the challenge for Scottish unionists is to start thinking like Foch before they have to file a report like von Moltke.

Scotland’s General Foch?

Publicly at least, individual polls have been dismissed as unreliable outliers, particularly Panelbase surveys which have regularly inflated support for separation and famously put Yes ahead two weeks before the 2014 referendum, but there can be no denying the direction has been consistently upwards in favour of independence. The counter has been regular research showing a clear majority of people do not regard independence as an immediate priority.

Whether new Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross emerges as Scotland’s General Foch remains to be seen, but as the communications and policy output have cranked up considerably since he took over there isn’t much doubt he’s up for the fight.

With unionism in retreat, will Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross hang in there like General Foch in the First World War? (Picture: John Devlin)

The scale of the task is glaringly obvious with the new poll confirming the SNP is still on track to win an absolute majority of over 70 seats at next May’s Scottish elections but as 40 per cent of voters don’t know if he’s doing a good or bad job it suggests more profile-raising is needed. Publicity about him running the line at last week’s England vs Wales football international won’t have done any harm.

The latest survey was conducted on October 2-9, so mostly before the Margaret Ferrier affair and across a week to forget for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Nevertheless, her approval ratings remain sky high, with 72 per cent of voters satisfied with her performance, a net plus of 49 points compared to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s negative score of 58.

SNP complacency, unionist despondency

Conservative members like me tend to be a loyal bunch, but when the poll indicates 36 per cent of Scottish Tory supporters are dissatisfied with the Prime Minister’s performance there is no point in pretending it’s not a factor. As for talk about a civil war within the SNP, that might be the case at the very top where dissatisfaction with party management is being well-voiced, but with 93 per cent of SNP supporters satisfied with Ms Sturgeon it isn’t impacting where it matters most.

Even so, while the Conservative vote in Thursday’s Ellon by-election was 600 down, Lib Dem support collapsed by over 60 per cent, and a UK YouGov poll published yesterday still has Conservatives leading Labour. The danger for unionists generally is despondency and the flip side for nationalists is complacency, as evidenced by “we’re on our way” messages from prospective SNP candidates already dreaming of advancement.

But six months into the Covid-19 era is, sadly often literally, a lifetime away. Nothing will change for die-hards on either side, but with the very real prospect of a strict lockdown going well beyond Christmas who knows how attitudes will change. Pointless bans on amateur sport and more incidents like the forced closure of a Bruntsfield café because it has an alcohol licence, even though it wasn’t serving any, demonstrates the rules are every bit as chaotic here as in the south.

Brexit and Salmond affair loom large

Compare too, the reaction of Conservatives in the north of England, joining opposition to stricter restrictions without more financial support while the SNP’s civic leaders dutifully blame Westminster for not allowing more borrowing, not the Scottish Government for failing to get on with the distribution of £700m worth of new resources at its disposal.

Much has been made of the relatively low spread of the virus in Germany and the benefits of a de-centralised system with responsibility for health left to individual states who have learnt quickly from each other what works best and adopted best practice. Scotland and Wales have the same power and could be adopting strategies from places like Sweden where the spread has been limited without wrecking the economy. Instead the response to UK policies seems to be carp and copy.

There is no sign that either Scottish or UK Governments are facing up to the reality of a permanent life with Covid, but the two other big factors in the Scottish political landscape will play out before the turn of the year. The Salmond affair is still to unravel, and while it might seem like a trifling detail, all the twists and turns about the mysterious meeting between Ms Sturgeon and her predecessor’s adviser are only adding to the sense that something serious is up.

And Brexit. Deal or no deal, Brexit will be done and the new internal and external relationships will be reality. As of yesterday, the relationship between Britain and Europe looks as entrenched as the Western Front after the Marne.

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