A Guide for Concerned Unionists
By Rikki Lidderdale
Scottish Parliament elections
On May 6th Orcadians will choose an MSP to represent our interests in the Scottish Parliament. In this piece I’m not going to tell you who I think you should choose – there will be stacks of tedious and vapid leaflets coming through your door about that! Instead, I will invite you to ignore electioneering hype and think about the bigger picture and our long-term future.
What it is and what it is not
The vast majority of the UK’s media and its political parties are against Scottish independence. It’s not surprising therefore that this election has been framed by many as a de facto Indyref 2. But it isn’t. Even if The SNP win a majority the legal route to Indyref 2 is emphatically blocked by Westminster. The alternatives are outside chances. Illegal secession or a referendum without a section 30 order would not be recognised by the EU, which undermines the whole independence project. The May election is to choose a Scottish government and nothing more.
The fundamental problem
The analogy of marriage is illuminating regarding the Britain / Scotland relationship. Edinburgh band Stanley Odd’s “Marriage Counselling” (2012) is a masterpiece of this kind. The Union of 1707 was a marriage of necessity. Scotland needed trading access to England’s Empire and England needed to nullify Scotland’s geopolitical threat. The honeymoon period of Empire and industrial revolution ended with the world wars and now the marriage’s magic has gone. The UK is having a mid-life crisis.
Unionists may deny the last two points, but UK policy on Northern Ireland (NI), Scotland and Brexit continue to undermine national cohesion. The devolved nations and England are mutually annoyed at each other’s attitudes. Therefore, if you want the UK to continue it must change. If partners in marriage aren’t willing to make mutual compromises, then their only future will be coercive and unhappy.
There are two basic choices facing us:
- Resist change and end up bitterly divided, or
- Reform the UK.
What not to do
I wrote recently to the Orcadian’s postbag about the Scottish Conservatives’ suggestion that voting for them in May would “End division”. This is blatantly false. The latest poll from mid-March shows support for Independence at 51% (Opinium 2021). The idea that half of Scots might forget about independence if Douglas Ross became FM is risible.
Boris Johnson told Andrew Marr in January that Scots should wait 40 years before another constitutional referendum (The Times 2021), committing around half the nation to dissatisfaction until 2054!That attitude is the root of the UK’s problems. If a partner in marriage says “I’m unhappy; we need to change something” then responding with an emphatic “No” will make everything worse.
The Economist recently spoke to a Catalan commentator who described Catalonia as “resigned and downcast” (2021:26). “The separatists are resigned to the fact that independence won’t happen, and the non-nationalists that there’s nothing to be done”. This is Scotland’s future too, unless the UK can change.
What happens elsewhere
Wales seems to be moving slowly in a similar direction to Scotland (ITV 2021). NI is a political powder keg and the UK Government’s impossible Brexit promises to the region may yet reignite the troubles or nudge it towards reunification with Ireland. How can we defuse this constitutional timebomb?
In Canada, the Québécois nationalist movement still win regional and federal seats, despite having lost two independence referendums on the finest of margins (so much for “end division”). They even enjoy constitutional superiority regarding their appointments to the supreme court (Secretariat du Quebec 2021). In Spain, Catalonia’s regional government enjoys highly preferential devolution compared to other unionist Spanish regions (BBC 2017). Belgium, with its distinct lingual and national groups, is constitutionally setup to ensure no one of these groups dominates another (Belgium.be). It is this special treatment of minority regions which have, so far, kept these territories in their respective countries. These are the price tags of modern unionism.
What we could do
England’s regions are beginning to demand greater autonomy too. Recall the metro-mayors of the North such as Andy Burnham causing a major headache for Westminster over the tier system. Note the rise of Cornish and Yorkshire movements. England’s devolution is different than Scotland’s, but why should they settle for less? London has its own assembly – surely England, a nation of 56 million, should have its own parliament(s).
That would mean a down-sized Westminster dealing with macro-economic policy, foreign policy and defence. The devolved nations and the English regions could then form a Federation of equals, and the political alienation from London which so many parts of the UK feel now could be minimised.
Who might do it?
The Conservatives are essentially committed to the status quo. The Labour Party however have called for a radical new written constitution for the UK (The Guardian 2021), which was supported by Scottish Labour’s new leader Anas Sarwar (The Guardian 2021). The LibDems autumn conference supported a motion calling for a radically reformed Federal UK (2021: 24-27). The Green Party were well ahead of the curve, publishing a paper proposing constitutional reform for the UK in the immediate aftermath of the Independence referendum (2014).
The bigger picture
The UK Parliament has always had a binary two-party system. The problem today is that this minoritarian ‘winner takes all’ system is too cut-throat to accommodate the plurality of politics which the modern UK represents. Shockingly, only once post-war has a UK government been supported by a majority of the electorate (Electoral Reform Society 2020):
The two-party system was balanced only when Wales and Scotland overwhelmingly voted Labour, which is now a distant memory. Therefore, the likely outcome of any future election is a divided and partisan Scotland within a UK which is very likely to be Conservative. The quickest (but not the only) route toward a happier Union is a comprehensive reform via a Labour government in London.
May the 6th
If you’re a concerned Unionist, then don’t allow the media and electioneering to get you in a flap:
- If you’re an Orkney LibDem to the core, then do what you normally would.
- If (unlike mainstream politics) you haven’t forgotten about the climate emergency (!), then vote Green.
- If you’re realistic about saving the UK, then vote Labour (they only need to gain 7 seats to be Scotland’s official opposition).
Voting any other way is likely to gradually remake Scotland as the new Catalonia. Don’t succumb to wishful thinking – the genie of Scottish Nationalism cannot be put back in the lamp overnight. The UK is not doomed, but if England and Scotland keep voting for incompatible ideas it soon will be.
BBC (2017) Catalonia: What powers does the region have?.Available from <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-41754124>
Belgium.be (2021) The Federal Government. Available from <https://www.belgium.be/en/about_belgium/government/federal_authorities/federal_government>
Electoral Reform Society (2020) Electoral reform in Westminster. Available from <https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/campaigns/electoral-reform/>
The Green Party (2014) Democracy for Everyone. Available from <https://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/2014/09/19/greens-back-calls-for-peoples-constitutional-convention/>
The Guardian (2021) Kier Starmer urged to back re=adical constitutional reform for the UK. Available from <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/jan/31/keir-starmer-urged-to-back-radical-constitutional-reform-for-uk>
The Guardian (2021) Scotland deserves true devolution. Available from <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/31/scotland-devolution-independence-labour-wealth-local>
ITV (2021) Poll reveals highest support for Welsh independence ever recorded. Available from <https://nation.cymru/news/poll-shows-highest-support-for-welsh-independence-ever-recorded/>
The Economist (2021) “Variations on a Nationalist Theme” February 20th issue.
Liberal Democrats autumn conference (2021) Programme. Available from <https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/libdems/pages/59328/attachments/original/1597068404/Aut20_Agenda_book_b.pdf?1597068404>
Opinium Scottish Independence Poll March 2021 Available from <https://www.opinium.com/resource-center/uk-scottish-parliament-voting-intention-11-march-2021>
Scottish Conservatives (2021) https://www.scottishconservatives.com/2021/02/end-division-no-referendum-rebuild-scotland/
Secretariat du Quebec (2021) Quebec’s place within the Supreme Court. Available from <https://www.sqrc.gouv.qc.ca/relations-canadiennes/institutions-constitution/place-qc/cour-supreme-en.asp>
Stanley Odd (2012) “Marriage Counselling” Available from
The Times (2021) Scots should wait 40 years for another vote. Available from <https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/scottish-independence-scots-should-wait-40-years-for-another-vote-says-boris-johnson-vtgsz6ktm>