“It’s not a proper country,” Billy Bragg once summed up the UK. The tensions of our multi-national union have never been nearer to snapping. While English tabloids beat the drum for Brexit and Britannia, their sister stables have a different focus. “Nic’s Bojo Bounce!” proclaimed The Scottish Sun’s cover this week. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon is pictured bouncing atop Boris Johnson’s head shaped into a space hopper. And she might well do.
The first poll following Johnson’s ascension to prime minister found 52% support in Scotland for independence. No one in Scotland is surprised. Scottish Tories – afraid his posh, southern Brexit brand would jar north of the border – ran an internal campaign called ‘Operation Arse’ backing anyone but Johnson for leader. English Tories – preoccupied with Brexit – didn’t listen.
Scottish unionists are now jittery. In 2014 their call for Scots to be risk averse won out 55% to 45% – in part because they promised continued EU membership. So in 2016 the Scottish National Party (SNP) and wider independence movement seized on Scotland’s divergent 62% remain vote as a vindication of the case for self-government. The three year long circus at Westminster is slowly persuading sceptics they’re right. Is there anything that can keep the union? Is it even worth saving?
Despite 12 years of SNP government, the party’s domestic opposition are now at their lowest ebb. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson – once proclaimed the saviour of the union – is impotent in the face of Johnson’s Brexiteer takeover. Since calling him a liar on the eve of the referendum, she has endured climb down after climb down on Europe. One of Johnson’s first acts was to sack her close colleague and friend David Mundell. A desperate Davidson – simultaneously seeping support of Europhiles to the liberals and hardliners to the Brexit party – is now the least popular Tory figure among its UK grassroots. Further polling confirmed her nightmare: Tories want Brexit even if it means the end of the union.
Scottish Labour, similarly entangled in both constitutional divides, is fairing little better. Its 2014 anti-independence coalition with the Tories caused its traditional support to collapse across post-industrial Scotland. The last thing the party needed was the divisions of Brexit to pour oil onto that burning rubble. It got just 9% in the European elections this May.
If there’s any hope for Scottish Labour and the union it lies in the Corbyn project – which injected enough optimism in 2017 for a mini-revival. A positive policy-based campaign can win in Scotland. Going on and on about hating the SNP and ‘nationalism’ won’t. For Scottish Labour to have any hope, these old guard pub bores need to get out of the way for a new generation.
To succeed they need a serious offer of constitutional change, short of independence. Voices like Ewan Gibbs, Rory Scothorne and Paul Sweeney MP want reform of the UK state as a day one priority for any future Labour government. Pauline Bryan was appointed by Jeremy Corbyn to help put together these plans for “radical federalism”. The route, however, is treacherous.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, apparently with Jeremy Corbyn’s support, caused ruptures in Edinburgh this week by saying Labour would not block a future referendum on independence. Ian Murray MP, a fan of union jack suits, was particularly upset this didn’t follow the unionist strategy of screaming ‘No!’ at the SNP until the ice caps melt.
The SNP, although buoyed by recent events, has its own challenges. There is no stable majority for independence as yet, and no legal agreement to hold a referendum. Both May and Johnson have said ‘No’. Brexit is an uncertain mess, which could even be reversed. The fallout has also shown the difficult consequences of a country split down the middle. These questions are unlikely to be solved before the next Scottish election in May 2021.
This explains why Sturgeon is a gradualist on independence. Her leadership is focused on governing – to the impatience of some supporters who think ‘now’s the day and now’s the hour’. Sturgeon is in no rush to gamble SNP dominance, and has put a great deal of effort into opposing Brexit in the knowledge that the long sweep of history appears to be in her favour.
Our fragile union – an imperial concept contingent upon continued Scottish autonomy – can only remain with democratic consent. The arrogance and disregard of Johnson and Brexit-fixated English nationalism will force Scotland to take a different path – unless the Tories are brought down and the UK state is permanently reformed.
That’s a task only the Corbyn project can deliver. It’s already got a hell of a lot on its plate. Party division. Brexit division. Campaign strategy. But if it wants any success in Scotland, it needs to get serious about reforming the UK state for the 21st century. While its opponents of all shades sneer, the window of opportunity for that compromise between the nations of the UK is closing fast.