The Conservatives Have Given Up on Unionism

Is the Union dead?

Think of each political party and certain beliefs come to mind. Even though Ed Davey has argued rejoining is a long term goal, the Liberal Democrats will always support EU membership. Throughout its evolving history, Labour’s links with trade unions will never vanish. The Greens will campaign for renewable energy and oppose climate change above all else. 

For the Conservatives, unionism is meant to be at their core. It is in the name of their party. Support for the continued union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is meant to frame every aspect of their policies. Over the last few years, the opposite couldn’t be more true. Their policies and political decisions have weakened the union’s continuation. Perhaps even worse, they have forgotten how to make the case for the union. 

With this month marking six years since the first Scottish independence referendum, their arguments against independence have faded away. So much has changed in those six years: different Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Green, UKIP and Brexit Party leaders, Brexit, three general elections, the coronavirus pandemic. An insurgent SNP however, is perhaps the only headline that’s transferred effortlessly from September 2014 to September 2020. 

The SNP are likely to win a majority at the Scottish Parliament elections next year. With the UK having left the transition period, they will argue that another independence referendum is legitimate. I think it isn’t. Individuals voted in 2014 with the knowledge that David Cameron’s Conservatives could win the 2015 election, an EU referendum would then be held and that our departure could then take place. Besides, the SNP are defined by wanting independence. Whatever the circumstances, they would always seek to legitimise Scotland departing from the UK. 

However, the British government have failed to oppose the SNP’s cause. Both because of the coronavirus pandemic, which led to cross party unity, and their views on Brexit, making the case for the United Kingdom remaining together has been far harder. The Internal Market Bill seeks to ensure Northern Ireland won’t be treated differently from the rest of the UK. Yet Boris Johnson and the Conservatives less than a year ago agreed to a Withdrawal Agreement that would treat Northern Ireland separately. It was an ‘oven ready’ deal at the last election. Whatever your criticisms of Theresa May’s agreement, at least it treated the entire UK consistently.

The UK had clear historic ties with the European Union. Even before we joined the European Community in 1973, Britain was embarking on trade with the EC and having clear discussions with them. As the last few years have proven, attempting to unravel over four decades of relations is far from easy. This, however, would be nothing compared to unrivalled the UK’s relationship with Scotland. For over 300 years, we have been historically, culturally and economically tied together. Any kind of Withdrawal Agreement would take years to agree on. 

The economic aspect is most obvious. Even if it were economically beneficial for the Scots to succeed, my inner unionism believes that the cultural and historical links are too strong. However, it is not economically beneficial. The price of oil has plummeted over the last few years. This is essential for the Scottish economy. When the economic arguments were shaky in 2014, the SNP could at least point to a high price of oil. This has now vanished. Similarly, the independence side have failed to be clear on which currency Scotland would use.

The Conservatives have fundamentally failed to make the case for the union. Part of this links to their opposition towards the European Union. Those who believe the UK should have the right to become independent from the EU cannot really oppose Scotland having the right to independence. Yet the European Union will not be Scotland’s saving grace. While the SNP want Scotland to rejoin the EU as an independent country, they have forgotten a key aspect. Every present member has to approve a new member. Spain don’t want Catalonia to seek independence. If they approved Scotland’s membership, it could incentivise the Catalonians to become independent. Scotland’s EU membership is therefore far from inevitable.

The position of the two major parties has been dire in preventing the insurgance of Nicola Sturgeon’s independence movement. After the 2019 general election in particular, the Conservatives were deeply complacent. As their majority was so large, they failed to examine the one part of the UK where they’d performed poorly: Scotland. Losing seven seats, the increase in seats they had enjoyed under Ruth Davidson was gone. No time was taken to explore why this was the case.

Scottish Labour have been even worse. Reduced once again to one seat at Westminster, and looking set to come third again in the Scottish Parliament elections, Richard Leonard’s leadership has been appalling. Their position on independence is the very definition of ambiguous. The public has no idea where the party stands. Even Keir Starmer has now accepted that an SNP majority next year would give them a mandate for a second independence referendum. From a party that was once so dominant, their decline has been saddening to witness. 

Ironically, the government’s response for dealing with coronavirus has helped to fuel the SNP’s case for independence. Instead of a centralised health response from Westminster, every part of the UK has been able to adopt a different approach, simply by being different countries. With health policy devolved, the administrations haven’t been able to engage in a collective discussion about health policy and the correct direction for the UK. Even when the SNP’s response has been particularly poor, Nicola Sturgeon has been far more effective at avoiding blame through good PR.

The union may already be lost. I would like to hope not, but the rise and continued peak of the SNP, whatever the policies, would suggest victory in a second referendum is perhaps inevitable. There are arguments and challenges that can be made against their cause however. From the economic ties to cultural relations, promises that the last referendum would be once in a generation to no guarantee of reentering the European Union, there are numerous holes for unionist parties to pick in the SNP’s arguments. The question is whether they will have the courage to do so. 

Is the Union dead?