After a strictly provisional ceasefire, the “Scottish question” once again takes center stage in our politics. A union identity crisis is fast turning into a survival crisis, and our leaders know it. In recent days, both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer have ventured north of the border. They held meetings with their respective Scottish Party leaders, no doubt plotting the battles to come.
Outsiders have noted cautious but growing optimism in the unionist camp. The very fact that Johnson is visiting Scotland for the first time since January suggests that concerns that his underground voting levels in Scotland will sink the union have subsided.
This newly discovered optimism in the unionist camp is also exemplified in Michael Gove’s recent comments to Scotsman. Sunday Mail. Gove, who just a month ago said that Westminster had ruled out a second referendum before 2024, told the newspaper: If the people of Scotland develop a “strong will in favor of a referendum, then there will be one.”
Gove’s acceptance that Scotland has the right to decide on “indyref2” is a sea change from a government that has long insisted on the supremacy of Westminster as a permanent constitutional principle. The government has invested a lot of time and faith in this doctrine. It has been affirmed and reaffirmed, most significantly in the 2019 EU Withdrawal Agreement, that ‘the UK Parliament is sovereign’.
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But the question of sovereignty is still far from resolved in Scotland. And Gove’s recent intervention is but the latest example of government self-contradiction.
When Ian Blackford of the SNP proposed that “this House supports the principles of the ‘Claim to the Right’ for Scotland” in 2018, MPs raised no objections. Scotland’s “Claim of Law” (1989) is a document declaring the “sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government that best suits their needs”. Despite being a clear front to conservative trade union “thought”, no opposition was raised.
But the government’s “thoughtless unionism” is not the key story here. Rather, Gove’s comments also remind us of the path not taken, the forgotten “thinking unionism” now sadly relegated to the past.
‘The strong will’ of the Scottish people was a phrase first invoked by Labor John Smith at a meeting of the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC) in 1990. The SCC was convened to articulate a common vision for a Scottish Parliament. And he got it. The SCC report, published in 1995, formed the basis of the Scottish Act of 1997.
But the convention also served another, more important purpose. Faced with an increasingly self-confident Scottish nationalism, his aim was to reform and thus galvanize trade unionism in general. As part of this task, the SCC conveners drafted the landmark “Claim of Right,” the same document that Westminster approved again in 2018.
A fervent and enthusiastic devotee, John Smith was crucial in this attempt to revitalize unionism. His statement that the return was “the firm will of the Scottish people” was drafted to recognize both the political reality of Scottish sovereignty and the need for a Scottish parliament to accommodate and strengthen it.
So while Gove could appropriate Smith’s vocabulary, it is clear that he does not share his vision. His comments about Scotland’s “strong will” are belied by the devout-skeptical English nationalism that has long guided government policy north of the border.
Our Prime Minister and self-proclaimed “Union Minister” has described Scottish decentralization as a “disaster”. Gove himself has said that the UK constitution “is not fit for purpose”. And Jacob Rees-Mogg has pointed out that “New Labor’s constitutional tweaks … weakened our parliament and helped divide Britain.”
Smith’s unionism was defined by his ability to adapt to Scottish sub-nationality. But, for this government, the concept that things work differently in Scotland and unevenly in the “four nations” is a scandalous slight to British unity.
Before the 2014 referendum, Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie observed that “trade unionism has no new songs.” Now, 7 years later, Johnson and his administration prove Jamie is right every time. The Anglo-Scottish union has lasted 314 years due to the ability of the leading figures to innovate in the face of the challenge, but this government does not have the capacity or creativity for change. Conservative intransigence is now the biggest threat to the integrity of the UK.
Until last week, the SNP has compiled a list of Boris Johnson’s many “lies and broken promises” related to Scotland. They include Johnson’s failed record on workers’ rights, the “betrayal” of the Scottish fishing industry, attempts to privatize the NHS, the “takeover” of home market law and much more. Clearly, the SNP believes that Johnson is an argument for independence in and of himself.
So despite all the rhetorical flourish of Gove’s comments, we have no reason to believe that this government can listen to the people of Scotland, whether their will is established or not. Our government does not intend to recognize Scottish sovereignty; for blindfolded “unthinking trade unionists” in government, such an admission would insult the very foundation of British unity. Johnson believes that uniform British nationalism is the only legitimate form of patriotism.
With a second referendum on Scottish independence increasingly in the cards, a hypothetical “No” campaign will, in all likelihood, embrace the government’s ascendant muscle unionism. And so Scotland will remain in a constitutional and political stalemate, caught between Sturgeon’s vision of independence and Johnson’s uncompromising unionism, take it or leave it.
In the middle, somewhere, there is a case to be made in favor of the union. But as of now, to the great risk of the UK, neither side is willing to pull it off.