Marcus Booth says that the impetus towards Scottish independence will not be halted without a proper vision for the United Kingdom
Just over a year ago, the people of Scotland voted decisively to remain part of the United Kingdom. To many of us on the Unionist side, the majority was not as large as had we had hoped for when the starting gun was fired but nor was it as narrow as many of us had begun to fear as the campaign unfolded.
The Yes campaign mounted a hugely impressive campaign, brushing aside some rather bruising economic realities and instead managing to paint a narrative of ‘hope over fear’. An independent Scotland, free of Westminster’s yoke, would be a land where anything was possible, independence would be the solution to the scourges of poverty and inequality, the panacea for all ills. Not always managing to control the uglier side of the campaign (the on-line abuse, the allegations that some Unionists were concerned about speaking out), the Yes campaign nevertheless appeared near to achieving what had seemed impossible when the Nationalists had been returned to power with a majority in 2011.
The Unionists, forced into a referendum campaign they never wanted, were an uneasy coalition brought together by default and seemed to struggle at times to project the positive message making the case for Britain. Of course, the Better Together campaign was right to highlight the risks of separation, but at times (aided by the Yes campaign attacking the messenger and framing the debate) the focus seemed to be fear as opposed to hope. The Prime Minister, amongst others, did make the positive case but too often these voices were drowned out as the debate took sway.
That said, Scots in sufficient numbers saw hope yet in the Union. A last minute intervention by former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown was galvanising, and a commitment by the UK party leaders to more powers (the so-called ‘Vow’) has firmly set Scotland down a path of greater devolution - a commitment that, despite the SNP’s complaints, the Government is delivering upon.
For those of us who believe in the Union and who, despite the skilful messaging of the SNP, remain entirely unpersuaded that separation would be a good thing for any of the UK’s constituent parts (not least Scotland), we should remain fearful for its future.
When David Cameron and Alex Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement on the terms of the Scottish independence referendum, the UK and Scottish Governments agreed to honour the result. Had the Unionists lost the referendum, there is no doubt in my mind that the UK government would have honoured its commitment in the Agreement and we would now be in the middle of protracted national divorce proceedings.
The Nationalists, however, despite proclaiming the vote as a ‘once in a generation opportunity’, seem to be treating the referendum as a temporary setback on an inevitable march to independence. I have not heard a convincing explanation of how discussion of a second referendum sits consistently with the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement, but why dwell on such legalities or expect the Nationalists to play by the rules? I am not surprised, as independence is the raison d’etre of the SNP. It is the glue that binds it. Without it, their very identity as a political party is challenged.
The battle may therefore have been won by the Unionists but the war may yet be lost. The 2015 General Election saw a Nationalist juggernaut triumph and the SNP are predicted to consolidate power at Holyrood in the 2016 Scottish elections.
During the last month of the referendum campaign, I co-wrote an article with a former senior SNP activist in which we argued for a fundamental re-think of the UK’s constitutional settlement. We wrote that once the dust has settled, and the votes have been counted, Scotland and her nearest neighbours would need to sit down, talk things through, and negotiate a political settlement which took into account the referendum result.
I have long been sceptical of the lopsided New Labour devolution settlement, which ironically seemed to me to have as its goal the preservation of Labour’s position north of the border, as opposed to delivering a viable and lasting constitutional settlement for the people of these islands.
The tensions in the current set-up are obvious and the sense of unfairness in England has not gone away.
It is also clearer than ever before that simply feeding more and more powers to Holyrood will not satisfy the majority of supporters of independence and this should not perhaps be surprising. However, many in Scotland (if you are to believe the polls) seemed attracted by the albeit vague ‘Devo Max’ proposal that didn’t make it onto the ballot.
If we are to preserve the UK, those of us who believe in it in the Conservative Party need to be prepared to think radically and to seize the agenda in a far bolder way from the SNP, who currently seem to be setting the terms of the debate on its future.
We need to create a new Union, where decisions are taken as closely to the people as possible but where the constituent nations of the UK play their full part in the matters where it make sense to pool resources and sovereignty.
What would this constitutional settlement look like?
Many in our Party and beyond are already talking about a federal outcome. What is clear, however, is that we need a conversation across these Isles that leads to a binding settlement that can deliver a durable alternative to the spectacle of the Nationalist ‘Neverendum’, where the Scots will be asked to vote again and again until they get the right answer.
We have a unique opportunity as a Party and as a Government to seize the agenda and lead the debate. We should not let it pass and in doing so we should make the case for a Union that has served the peoples of these islands well for over 300 years.
Marcus Booth is a member of the Party’s Disciplinary Committee, a former Chairman of City Future, and stood for the Conservatives in Angus in 2001 (securing a 6.7 per cent swing from the SNP).
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 10/03/2016.