All unionists were rightly outraged when Sturgeon recently called for a second separation referendum. As far as we are concerned, the question of independence or separation (depending on your perspective) was put to rest on 18th September 2014 in a vote we were told would “deliver a fair test and decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect”. Or at least, so Sturgeon and Salmond promised us when they signed the Edinburgh Agreement along with David Cameron in 2012.
Of course, politicians aren’t big on keeping promises, and just two and a half years after their initial defeat, the SNP seem determined to once again drag Scotland through a polarising, divisive and all round unedifying re-run of the initial separation referendum. The long, cold hours spent campaigning on the streets, the passionate debates to sway our opponents, the angst, the doubt and the hostility we endured and the relief we ultimately felt all now seem like they count for little, totally disregarded by the nationalist majority comprised of SNP and Greens at Holyrood.
Thankfully our Prime Minister Theresa May has stated that she will not allow a referendum within the timescale that Sturgeon demands, but the threat of IndyRef2 still looms on the horizon a few years down the line. She might seem clever and tactful in saying “not now” rather than simply “no”, and stating that we must first wait until Brexit is complete; but in doing so she has created an expectation that she is only opposed to a pre-Brexit IndyRef2; an expectation that will be very hard to backtrack from if we do as planned leave the EU upon schedule in mid-2019 (or, indeed, if we don’t).
Some may think it is a smart move to moderate the UK Government’s opposition to a second referendum by making the issue about timing. It may indeed in the short-term tame the extent of nationalist outrage at the UK Government’s decision, but come the next Scottish election in 2021, it may seem rather less wise if a nationalist majority is elected.
Some unionists say that the nationalists will fail, for the first time in over a decade, to get a majority of seats at that election; it would be wonderful if it could be so, but who can imagine nationalist voters turning to Corbynite Labour or the Conservatives in any sort of numbers? It is Labour, not the SNP that is collapsing, and the Scottish Tories are winning votes from Labour rather than the SNP. Wishful thinking, delusions of imminent nationalist decline and the resulting inadequate approach to separatism have been killing the Union ever since Labour MSP George Robertson announced that the creation of the Scottish parliament would “kill nationalism stone dead”.
What we really need, rather than these games politicians try to play for short-term advantage, is serious and fundamental arguments against the legitimacy of any second referendum. These arguments must be rooted in our constitutional and democratic traditions, themselves placed firmly within our understanding of what exactly the UK is, the very thing are aiming to preserve. And this demands a broad critique of the political direction that the UK has undertaken in recent times when those very values and traditions have been discarded; most especially regarding its constitutional integrity and Scotland’s place within it. To offer this critique and to provide solutions, we have developed our Union, Constitution, Industry, Sovereignty theme.
Scotland’s place within the UK has been consistently weakened since the introduction of legislative devolution in 1999. It is unthinkable that the modern mass nationalist movement could have taken off without the platform that Holyrood provided for the SNP. When the Scottish parliament was introduced, complete with a Scottish government and a first minister, it naturally reinforced a sense of Scottish difference and separation from the rest of the UK. It also made the SNP electable in a way they were not at general elections; a safe protest vote outside the serious politics of the UK level.
Perhaps most significantly, it allowed nationalist ‘governments’ to erect new barriers between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Suddenly they could make Scottish laws and regulations different from those in England, making it difficult for businesses to operate freely across them. They could re-orientate the provision of services to the Scottish level, forging for example Police Scotland and Fire and Rescue Scotland from what we once well-regarded local services, and turning them into inefficient monoliths. And they could wield a cultural war against all things British, promoting things like Gaelic road signs and a very nationalist-biased history curriculum in schools, all with the simple purpose of making Scots feel different from their fellow Britons.
Their ability to do all these things has been consistently strengthened by the continual handover of more and more powers to Holyrood, with the biggest single transfer of powers being handed over by the Conservative Government through the 2016 Scotland Act, which enshrined the permanency of the Scottish parliament in law. This was just the latest in a string of devolutionary acts, with the previous one in 2012 and several before that dating back to the original Scotland Act of 1998. Many are only now becoming aware of the dangers of this slow road to separation. They are apparent also in Wales and Northern Ireland; in the latter, nationalists can now call a referendum on Irish unification every seven years and lose it without consequence, while a single defeat for unionism is irreversible.
The position of the Unionist Party is that we must roll back this process of devolution and restore full union, with British MPs legislating together for the whole UK. It is only by doing this that we can stop the gradual institutional, political, economic and cultural separation of Scotland from the rest of the country, and being to re-forge a sense of common experience and common purpose with our fellow UK citizens.
Legislative devolution might have been the means by which the SNP were able to get into power, but it was the referendum device which gave independence a whiff of credibility at the polls. The SNP knew that they could not win seats on a manifesto commitment to UDI (unilateral declaration of independence) which, without the short-cut of a referendum, they would otherwise have required in order to win a mandate for separation.
The binary dynamic of referendums, and the reduction of the very complex matter of Scottish independence to a simple Yes/No option on a ballot paper allowed the Yes campaign to be all things to all people. This is significant in understanding why so many more people voted Yes than have ever voted SNP, bearing in mind the exceptionally high turnout at the referendum.
For the working-class Left, a Yes vote was a way to get rid of the prospect Conservative UK governments. For the more trendy, bourgeoisie, middle-class Left, it was a vote for a more liberal and ‘tolerant’ country, whatever that means. For the more right-wing and conservative nationalists who comprise the SNP’s largely elderly old-guard (now very much a minority within the party), a Yes vote was a rejection of the multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism which has swept over England.
This rather unlikely alliance, composed of a very eclectic and often diametrically opposed set of interests, was only able to exist because the simple Yes/No dynamic of the referendum allowed it to. In our parliamentary elections, parties are forced to put serious and coherent policy platforms to the public, rather than plastering one-word slogans all over the place as the Yes campaign did. And when they are forced to do that, it becomes a lot harder to be all things to all people. The SNP have managed it to some extent because of the lack of palatable alternatives, but never have they as a party mobilised support in the way that the Yes campaign did. The modern mass nationalist movement would very quickly disintegrate if it was unable to rally round during highly polarising referendums.
The position of the Unionist Party is that we must end the use of referendums and restore our traditions of parliamentary democracy. It is only by doing this that we will truly be able to feel that the Union is secure and that it won’t be put to a populist referendum every few years.
Britain has a massive international balance of trade deficit and unprecedented national and private debt. We produce little, import massively and are haemorrhaging money out the country as a result. Our once strong manufacturing economy has been destroyed by opening us up to wage competition from Eastern Europe and Asia, and replaced with the boom and bust of a finance and service-based economy which provides only limited, low quality jobs and is heavily focused around the City of London.
A large segment of the population, what used to be the working-class, are in open revolt against the globalisation and neoliberalism of recent decades which has cost them so dearly. Home ownership has become an impossible aspiration for most. Many now know they will work only low-pay, unstable and often quite undignified jobs, for which they must compete with an uncontrolled import of cheap labour from Latvia to Bulgaria.
In the USA, this disillusionment manifested itself in the election of Donald Trump, who was heavily supported in the old industrial ‘rust belt’ states. In the UK it could be seen in the vote to leave the European Union, with Brexit gaining significantly more support in working-class areas. But in Scotland, it’s the SNP who gain from the protest vote from the segment of the population which has been failed most acutely by the political elite and their economic orthodoxy.
The unifying, pan-UK nature of Britain’s old industries has disappeared. Gone are British Coal, British Steel, British Shipbuilding, and so many others and the common experience, products and secure employment which they once provided across the UK. Into their place have stepped unaccountable multinationals, global in character and ready to outsource at the first fluctuation in the market. We’re told that nationalisation doesn’t work, yet strangely the Dutch government manages to profit from ScotRail, owned by Dutch national rail provider Abellio. The Chinese government manages to profit from our power plants and energy infrastructure, most recently acquiring significant control over the very National Grid just last year.
The position of the Unionist Party is that we must restore a serious economy with a strong manufacturing sector, to reduce our reliance on the finance and service sectors and to develop a more balance economy along the lines of what we see in other developed economies like Germany’s. And essential transport and energy infrastructure, like our railways and energy transmission, must be taken back from multinationals and foreign governments and restored to the British people, creating common services, common responsibilities and a common experience from Belfast, to Glasgow, to Cardiff, to London.
The EU is an affront to our democracy, and the shock victory of the Leave campaign in last year’s referendum, very much a David v Goliath battle, shows that the ordinary person clearly feels the EU to have brought them more harm than good.
The case for leaving was and remains a comprehensive one. We are the second biggest contributor to the EU budget, and even once all the rebates, grants and subsidies we receive from the EU are taken into consideration, EU membership still costs the British person around £100 per year. In return, we sacrifice our legislative autonomy and even control over our very borders, and lose the right to freely establish trade deals with the rest of the world.
In contrast to the passionate and direct manner of the Leave campaign, the Remain campaign was always tame and concessionary, and from the beginning of the campaign made a huge deal about the importance of securing concessions from the EU; a strategy which itself tacitly admitted that Britons were unhappy with the European project.
It is the working-class who have suffered most from the EU and from the wider trend of globalisation, which the Brexit vote was very much a rejection of. It was the working-class of England and Wales that propelled the Leave victory last year; in Scotland also working-class voters were disproportionally likely to vote Leave, which almost 2 out of 5 Scottish voters backed. They don’t benefit from wage competition from Eastern Europe, and they don’t benefit from Britain’s reduction to a single cog in the integrated European market where it has, like a mere part in an assembly line, been reduced to a financial services hub for the rest of the continent, based largely in and around the City of London. Meanwhile our international balance of trade deficit grows rapidly and our national debt soars.
The position of the Unionist Party is that we must restore British sovereignty by fully leaving the EU and Single Market, with this being applied uniformly across the UK. It is only by doing this that we can restore control over our trade and borders, revive national industry and rebalance our economy. And from a unionist perspective, we can make a positive case for Union in a way that pro-EU nationalists can’t, because Brexit is above all else an opportunity for change.
These four themes – Union, Constitution, Industry, Sovereignty – are essential to tackling nationalism at its roots and restoring much of what our country, the United Kingdom, used to be. Things like tactical voting are fine in the short term, but this more substantial vision of reform is the only way to really tackle not just nationalism but the causes that gave rise to it.
We must assert that Britain is fundamentally a country in and of itself and not merely some sort of federal ‘family of nations’. We must assert our traditions of representative democracy and oppose from this firm basis the legitimacy of any referendum to break up our country. And we must use the opportunity provided by Brexit to push against the tide of globalisation and restore control over our borders, our trade and our national industry. This is how we can restore a real sense of common British purpose and experience, and really offer a counter-narrative to that of nationalism.