Why Unionists have a battle to save UK from the SNP – Paris Gourtsoyannis

Don’t make firm plans. That’s been the lesson, repeated again and again over the four years I’ve worked at Westminster for The Scotsman.

Independence supporters march through Glasgow
Independence supporters march through Glasgow

I arrived three weeks before the EU referendum expecting Brexit to be tidied away at the ballot box, allowing David Cameron to get properly stuck in to the first majority Conservative administration in nearly two decades.

My trip to Bali two days after the result was not as relaxing as I hoped.

Cameron swiftly disappeared to his shed, turning the past four years into the apex of the Boris Johnson story arc. First, his Brexit triumph followed by collapse in the Tory leadership; then the years as Theresa May’s tormentor and Prime Minister in waiting; and finally through the door of Number 10.

The Prime Minister is just back from Scotland, where support for independence is at a record high. Belatedly, Johnson has understood his next act will be to defend the Union. Perhaps his last act, if he fails.

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In ministerial interviews and the Prime Minister’s own remarks this week, I have been struck yet again by something that has puzzled me throughout the past four years: how unable or unwilling the Unionist political establishment has been to grasp the danger it is in. Like Quebec in the second half of the last century, Scotland is going through a generational shift in attitudes that will take years, if not decades, to play out. In a democracy, that has a bearing on the question of whether a second independence referendum takes place.

After the Brexit vote, Unionists scoffed at the absence of a surge in support for independence. To borrow from the great Billy Connolly, they were looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

It was always unsustainable for more than 40 per cent of Scots to want to leave the UK, as they consistently have since 2014. Not only have Unionists failed to fix the roof, the building is in worse shape than ever, and it’s being rocked by Brexit and coronavirus storms.

In 2014, the Yes side struggled to answer basic questions on the EU, defence, oil revenues and currency. Those remain important questions. But Johnson and Dominic Cummings helped erode the authority of facts, figures, experts and the media in 2016, replacing it with the individualist mantra of “take back control” that the SNP has been all too happy to follow.

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Brexit succeeded because rather than a 670-page white paper, it presented voters with a single blank sheet. The independence movement should have learned that lesson: their next prospectus won’t be based on bold predictions about currency, debt and oil revenues. In the midst of a climate emergency, North Sea oil could be a footnote anyway.

The Unionist side is also slow to realise that it spent most of the good ammunition in 2014. It’s bizarre to see a government led by people who derided and dismantled the tactics of the Cameron government in the EU referendum try to repurpose them in Scotland - where Project Fear was born and died.

Big numbers in government press releases won’t have the same effect.

Unionists would struggle even to deploy the Royal Family again, since Cameron revealed how Downing Street nudged the Queen’s officials to make her subtle intervention at the gate to Crathie Kirk in 2014.

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The independence cause has never been in a stronger position - and it might still get stronger. Imagine where independence polling will be if the UK goes into next year without a trade deal with the EU.

Scottish MPs from Unionist parties will all admit this when you speak to them, privately if not in public. But they are one of the only bits of the system that get it, and they are hugely outnumbered by the SNP.

Two decades of devolution has left much of the Whitehall machine unwilling to engage with Scotland, either through disinterest or fear. When you ask a question of any UK Government department other than the Scotland Office, what drives you mad isn’t that they usually don’t have the answer - it’s that they’re often surprised to get the question at all. Long gone are the days when 10 and 11 Downing Street were both occupied by Scots; for years, there has been a Scottish void at the heart of the UK Government.

Will there even be a cross-party Unionist campaign? If so, who will lead it? Ruth Davidson, whose political project was destroyed by the current Prime Minister?

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It all adds up to the fact that the Unionist side is unprepared for an independence campaign that will be much tougher than in 2014.

My decade in Scottish newspapers is coming to an end, so I hope you’ll indulge me in this postscript. A lot is said about how diminished the industry is, but The Scotsman still fulfils its core function in vital, irreplaceable ways. In my time, that’s included everything from Martyn McLaughin’s coverage of the Trump business empire to giving Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey his first column.

At Westminster, the few remaining Scottish journalists are often the only non-partisan voices asking the difficult questions of the UK Government that keep it focused on Scotland.

Whichever side of the constitutional debate you find yourself on, you should want that institution preserved. That is to say, if you love Scotland at all, you have to love The Scotsman at least a little. I didn’t plan on it when I came to Scotland the first time 15 years ago, having never set foot before - but I certainly do now.

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