The Prime Minister has little room left for mistakes and Unionists might be better off giving his opponent a commanding role if they actually care about Scotland
After David Cameron quite positively passed a plebiscite on the question of Scottish Independence, he was partly indebted for his victory thereof to non-conservative political figures and parties, including Gordon Brown, who gave a more sincere (and Scottish) deliverance of the Union’s fruits. Cameron and the Tory badge opted for a limited presence in Scotland and the Tory Prime Minister turned down a salivating Alex Salmond’s debate invites, allowing Alistair Darling to debate the then SNP leader instead. Indeed, it is not too wild to argue that Cameron won IndyRef ‘14 through stances à la left.
Today, in a different - and temporarily very different – Britain, polls on the question of Scottish Independence have taken a turn for the worse in the eyes of Unionists, with Independence taking the lead and refreshed bands of nationalists strutting the streets of Edinburgh with Saltires. This comes as a surprise and a disappointment for the current Prime Minister. During a crisis in this country, we band together and suspend inner or constitutional strife, resulting in a friendlier climate that tends to last for years afterwards. Not this time. The devolved administrations have forged different paths out of this crisis, leading to different evaluations and hence judgements of England and Scotland. According to some data, Nicola Sturgeon’s COVID-19 approval ratings are very much higher than Boris Johnson’s. At the end of May, YouGov found that 44% of adults in the UK thought Scotland has dealt better with the pandemic, with only 14% saying England. These data are obviously not conclusive and there are several points to raise, including the fact that the UK population is mostly English and if people are more likely to be critical of themselves and their own response, this may account for the more favourable figures for the less populated Scotland. Nevertheless, the signs do not look good right now for Unionists.
The Union-Independence numbers are not the only poll blues for the Prime Minister. They occur in a greater context, hinted at by the YouGov figures above. After generally satisfactory poll ratings across his first six months in Number 10, Johnson peaked at Lockdown. He has since experienced a significant slip as COVID-19 takes its toll and the failures in Britain’s response are uncovered or discussed, not to mention more personal affronts like the questionable and potentially hypocritical conduct of and over Mr Cummings. The upcoming report regarding the UK’s handling of COVID-19 may also damage the Prime Minister. Looking forward, so could poor performances in very much unfinished Brexit business, an economic fall-out and perhaps even a thumping Biden victory in the US boosting the more liberal and leftish factions of the world. Number 10 cannot bet on a new peak for Johnson coming any time soon, if ever. Also, while good relations with the Bank of England are not certain, a rupture with another Chancellor, the popular Rishi Sunak, while unlikely, could be disastrous. The Prime Minister needs to tread very carefully and it is no wonder he is dismissing calls for another Independence Referendum. Aside, this is very rightly so in my opinion. The ever suss SNP should pipe down; their one obsession (Independence) and ever-readiness to exploit vulnerabilities and emotional instability in the country for their political gain are causes for suspicion and distrust.
The reality is a recent surge in support for Independence. The wind is in Sturgeon’s sails in an increasingly unfavourable context for the Prime Minister. Unionists should take this seriously and explore all options. In Scotland, Boris Johnson has never been adored and he can be trusted as neither poster nor policy boy for the Union. Like Cameron, he is a well-off southern Eton-Oxford educated Tory with a party membership not so bothered about the Union. He is a Brexiteer with Scotland positively Remain. And it is very much possible that he only became a Brexiteer to boost his chances for the Premiership. Even the popular former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, has expressed distaste for Johnson, calling him a liar. In 2019, the Tories lost more than half of their Scottish seats in Parliament before a nationwide peak in approval for the Prime Minister. Boris Johnson’s bumbling façade does not cut it over the border.
So, Unionists should act as if Boris Johnson is less popular and less reliable in Scotland than David Cameron and Theresa May were, and in arguably less stable times. Sir Keir Starmer, on the other hand, proves an opportunity. The Labour Party’s fresh face is eating away the Tory PM’s approval ratings and churning them out for his own. If Unionists are serious about the Union, they will do well to learn from Cameron’s approach and consider the potentially more-palatable-to-the-Scots leader of the Labour Party as an asset. The Tories specifically, however, are more than Unionists and time will tell on their own palatability for any project that sees Starmer assume a greater role. First, they will note that Starmer is trying to get his own Scottish policies communicated. These include a renewed devolution settlement with a proposal for regained powers from Brussels moving to devolved administrations. Second, the obvious: Starmer is the incumbent Opposition Leader and not the respected but fizzled Gordon Brown. The Tories need more clarity and time to gauge Starmer’s popularity in Scotland and the threat the newest incarnation of the Labour Party could pose north of the border (where losses for Labour are crucial for the Tories in a General Election) and elsewhere.
But we need to remember that a referendum is won on the popular vote and even Labour-haters should be prepared to work very closely with Starmer in the unlikely scenario that another IndyRef is soon allowed. If Starmer conjures Union zeal and evenly sprinkles cool patience over Indy flames without his efforts materialising many red seats in Scotland, he is an invaluable Union asset with whom the Tories should work very closely anyway. The two parties, after all, are united on the existence of a United Kingdom. If they are serious about it they will accept that some persons have a better shot with the Scots than others. Boris Johnson is not one of them.
It is not clear what an increased role for or cooperation with Starmer would entail, but I would opt for a blend of poster and policy, including an increase in appearances of the Labour leader across the border, speeches on the matter of the Union and clear plans for Scotland and devolution post-Brexit. He should also emphasise Labour’s history in Scotland. Part of clarity, consistency is key. It is partly due to inconsistency that Labour has alienated Scots. An example was John McDonnell’s Independence blunder - a poor reflection on the party.
Unionists without loyalty to a particular party should grab the renewed Labour Party with zeal. For Starmer’s part, his job is to communicate red policies clearly across the border and reclaim the status from the Tories as the main Union force for Scotland. Many see Labour as the natural Unionist party for the nation. If Starmer can reignite this Scottish tendency to Labour it will help secure and improve his legacy, and Unionists might thank him for helping to save the Union.