Scottish politics has sunk into a binary hole. Yet we have a Holyrood electoral system that encourages multi-party politics. This has proved advantageous to the Conservatives and SNP at least in the short term. But this restricted constitutional choice prevents a richer debate on Scotland’s constitutional future.
Conservatism and Unionism
Lord Hailsham, Tory lawyer and constitutionalist, warned his party in the 1970s that firm opposition to Scottish nationalism would not make it go away. The failure to ‘come to terms with Irish nationalism by way of federation of devolution’ had been his party’s failure in the nineteenth century. Hailsham would soon forget his own warnings – as he did on the dangers of an ‘elective dictatorship’ – when he became Margaret Thatcher’s Lord Chancellor from 1979-1987.
The volte face was due to misreading the 1979 devolution referendum result. As the late 1970s constitutional analyst, Hailsham had warned that Scottish nationalism was an expression of genuine grievances with the ‘spark of national memories, tradition and sentiment’. As Lord Chancellor, he embraced the elective dictatorship deepening the sense of justified grievance. It is quite possible – even likely – that a more sensitive approach would have subverted such demands. Margaret Thatcher became the midwife of devolution aided by a contingent of Tory backbench outriders articulating what some commentators now call ‘muscular unionism’. These Diehards – to give them a name that Hailsham would understand – have always been there. Tory reformers were marginalised and few dared raise the possibility of elected devolution. By 1997, the Tory devolutionist wing was all but died.
Support for a Scottish Parliament hardened over the 18 years of Tory rule as Scottish Conservative support slipped away and, Tory MPs fell into two camps on the Scottish Question. There were the Diehards vehemently opposed to devolution including many who preferred integration, even assimilation seeking to roll back any evidence of Scottish distinctiveness. Some Diehard English Tories would turn up at Scottish Questions in the Commons and complain about Scotland’s privileged position. In a radio interview during this period, one Tory MP argued that Scots and English law and legal systems ought to be integrated.
The second camp consisted of those who were sympathetic to treating Scotland differently and insisted that the existing governing arrangements treated Scotland generously. They were often associated, in Tory vernacular of the time, with the party’s Wets. After the heavy Scottish defeats in 1987, a number of English Tory MPs were perplexed as to why Scots were not grateful for this generosity.
Mrs Thatcher straddled these camps in her own way. In her memoirs, while insisting she was the inheritor of much that was distinctly Scottish, she claimed that the Scottish Office ‘added a layer of bureaucracy, standing in the way of reforms which were paying such dividends in England – was that public expenditure per head in Scotland was far higher than in England’. She could never understand why Scots were so ungrateful to the Tories given higher levels of spending or the way that council tenants took advantage of ‘right to buy’ legislation but failed to show appreciation by voting Tory. In her words, there had been no ‘Tartan Thatcherite revolution’ (unaware that a clue could be found in this very phrase) and that the ‘balance sheet of Thatcherism in Scotland is a lopsided one: economically positive but politically negative.’
There was a belated effort to revive this weakening second camp under John Major with his promise to ‘take stock’ with the Scotland in the Union: a partnership for good white paper which looks not dissimilar to Cameron’s ‘respect agenda’ in a later era, the return of the Stone of Scone to Scotland with Secretary of State of Scotland Michael Forsyth doing his Harry Lauder impersonation at the Scottish premiere of Braveheart. But neither the Diehard nor the more accommodating camps had understood the nature of the challenge before them.
Ultimately, the Tories had allowed frustrations built on misunderstanding of Scottish public opinion to lead them deeper and deeper into trouble. The issue was not about whether the UK Government delivered goodies for Scots. In mattered less whether individual Tory policies were popular or that Tory Chancellors stuffed Scots’ mouths with gold but the failure to appreciate that having little support meant that any policy emanating from London could be deemed as an imposition. It would be an exaggeration to describe the problem as a legitimacy crisis but there was a growing problem of legitimacy.
Tory Unionism under Johnson
This takes us to where we are today. The Tories staged a minor revival after the independence referendum as they did after the devolution referendum. And just as happened after 1979, they squandered the opportunity to build on that success. For a brief period, the Scottish Tories looked as if they might be led someone who might outflank Labour and have a positive alternative to independence. But the party refused to embrace Murdo Fraser’s thinking at that time preferring Ruth Davidson in a battle that pitted ideas against spin. Linking Scottish party and fiscal autonomy might have avoided the binary politics of union vs independence into which the Tories had descended under Margaret Thatcher. Davidson’s time as leader looks set to be mythologised to the long term detriment of the Tories. She is seen, especially in London which counts for so much in Tory terms, as a great success. Her resignation may partly have been based on a desire to spend more time with her family though subsequent developments in her career suggest she may not be quote so keen on family life. Polls showed that Scottish Tory support was slipping away before her resignation and there had been scant evidence that she would improve on her party’s performance in Holyrood in 2016 and none that she would achieved her frequently asserted goal of becoming First Minister. The best Tory figure was still under 30%, still leaving the SNP with a double digit lead. Favourable media coverage, robust campaigning and exceptional communication skills were not enough. We can only speculate on what might have been with the combination of Fraser’s strategic and policy thinking and Davidson’s communication skills.
But regardless of Scottish Tory strategy, it would never be enough to help Scottish Tory fortunes. As noted by the late Jim Bulpitt, political scientist and most perceptive Thatcherite on such matters, the ‘most serious challenges have come not from the periphery but the Centre itself’. It is difficult to overstate the importance of Scottish perceptions of London rule. And therein lies the problem. The Tories’ Scottish problem with Brexit is not simply the impact Brexit will have but how it is being perceived even before the impact is felt. Brexit has already undermined support for the Tories and the union simply by perception as an imposition. Brexit is as near as anything today as the poll tax was for an earlier generation of Tories.
The Tories may appear to benefit from the dominance of the polarised constitutional question. The Tories can command the largest share of unionist voters. Ruth Davidson portrayed her party as alone in being trusted on the union forcing her competitors to disprove this claim and thereby contribute further to polarisation and onto ground she could comfortably stake the major claim. But the close association of the union with the Conservative Party puts the union in jeopardy not least if voters accept that Labour and LibDems might indeed be less than wholehearted in their support for the union. The problem with a polarised debate is that it helps the Scottish Tories to make gains at Labour’s expense but it also helps the SNP. The problem for the Tories is that polarisation has been working more to the advantage of the SNP and independence pushing more Labour voters into SNP hands.
The Tories have long since abandoned the space Hailsham once recommended to his party. There is neither an appetite to inhabit it nor, as the Tories see it, good reason to do so. Scottish Tory leaders claim to want to become First Minister much in the same way many young Scots want to play for the national side but are content, even rather surprised, if they reach the second division. For many decades now, the Scottish Tories exhibit a dependency culture, not unlike that which some colleagues south of the border have long accused the Scots. All is well so long as the Tories win in London and the party secures its position as Scotland’s second party.
This leads to the curious case of Scottish Labour. Once the dominant party in Scotland, it has been pushed to the margins and struggling to find its voice in this highly polarised debate. At its height Labour could claim to be ‘Scotland’s party’. It gained credit as the party of devolution in the years leading up to the establishment of the Scottish parliament and for some time thereafter though it was Labour’s reputation as the party of social justice that sealed its position. The SNP struggled to compete with it on both the Scottish and social justice agendas. Labour’s devolution policy distinguished it from the SNP and Tories. The 18 years of Tory rule moved the commitment from expediency to principled support. By the late 1990s, Labour’s anti-devolutionists had been pushed to the margins, though not so thoroughly as Tory devolutionists. But on assuming office in the new Edinburgh Parliament, Labour in partnership with the Liberal Democrats seemed uncertain as to what to do with this new institutional power. Labour’s devolution had its roots in opposition to perceived London misrule and might have had a clearer purpose had the Tories come to office in London earlier but struggled to find a clear policy agenda distinct from New Labour’s in London.
Wise heads inside the Labour Party were aware that the public can grow tired of the governing party and would look for an alternative at some point. From far back it had been clear that the SNP was the second preference for most Labour voters and if Labour stumbled it was likely to be to the SNP’s advantage. And so it proved. The transition from Labour to SNP proved easy for many voters in Holyrood elections, not least as it did not carry the threat of allowing the Tories to come to power.
Labour struggled to come to terms with being out of office. Worse came when the independence referendum forced Labour to take sides in the binary battle between the union and independence. Labour could have owned and been victorious had David Cameron not vetoed a third option on the ballot paper in 2014. The party of devolution found itself compelled to side with the Tories with whom they had little else in common than opposition to the SNP and independence. This was painful and awkward for a party that defined itself more in terms of left-right spectrum than the constitutional question.
Gordon Brown suggested that Scottish politics needed to be ‘reset’ and move on from the constitutional question. But politics cannot be returned to its previous settings like some wonky computer. We are where we are and instead of seeking a better yesterday need to give serious thought to an improved tomorrow. Along with a number of other Labour politicians Mr Brown has toyed with the idea of (quasi-)federalism and a UK constitutional convention. Such talk falls on deaf ears as we have been here or hereabouts before. Unless and until the idea moves beyond the expediency stage, it will gather little traction.
The Liberal Democrats might have been expected to fill this gaping hole in Scottish politics. There was a day when Liberals insisted they were neither unionists nor nationalists but federalists but the party cannot afford to upset Tory unionists whose votes they depend on to hold seats.
There is an array of possibilities between the poles of union and independence. Mrs Thatcher’s famous claim that ‘There is no alternative’ has become the watchword for Tories in reaction to demands for independence. There are many alternatives. What is lacking is a party willing to become the champion of a position that is worked up and can become part of a richer debate. Working up a proposal must go beyond the casual reference in a speech to quasi-federalism but will need to address some significant and challenging questions, not least how such a change fits within the existing UK constitution. Like the Bourbons, the Conservatives have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing. But Labour are in danger of the same. Time is running out for a reasonably well developed alternative option that might be included in a future referendum. Not only would this enrich a stale debate but would allow Labour to escape the potentially lethal embrace of working with the Tories again.
Further reading: Case for a new Act of Union, Stephen Daisley, Spectator, August 12; Devolution, federalism and the UK constitution, Andrew Blick, Federal Trust, June 2018; Malcolm Harvey, Is there a federal solution?, 50 shades of federalism; Iain Macwhirter, Sturgeon has corned market in public trust, Herald, May 2020; Severin Carrell, Davidson as Holyrood leader, Guardian, August 11; George Parker, Johnson blocks plan to invite Sturgeon to UK Cabinet, FT, August 11; Ailean Beaton, Curtice: Scots Tories need Labour revival, Holyrood Mag, August 13