Countering Nicola Sturgeon

The UK’s round of local and regional elections earlier this month produced the usual acres of newsprint of comment and analysis.  Much of this, in England at least, was focused on the poor performance of the Labour Party: the press enjoys kicking politicians when they are down, and Sir Keir Starmer presents a very easy target as his party struggles to find either its place on the political spectrum, as the Conservatives take more and more of their policies and turn into the high spending party of nationalisation and state control, or a sense of direction.

The ongoing transition of the Labour Party from the party of the mass of working men and women to a strange alliance of hard socialists and a metropolitan educated elite who in their desire to show how culturally sensitive they are adopt every passing fashion for diversity, inclusion and wokery does indeed offer fascinating political theatre.  Our own expectation is that this alliance is doomed to fail – the two parts of the Labour Party have almost nothing in common except their loathing for each other – but that the logical reorganisation of left of centre politics into different parties (a socialist one and a social democrat/green one, for example) will be difficult to bring about and deeply resisted by almost everyone involved.  Which is good news for the Prime Minister if not for the country.

This focus on Starmer has however hidden what we think is the more important message of the election, and the more important challenge that Boris Johnson faces.  And this is the ongoing disintegration of the United Kingdom.  For all four parts of the Kingdom now have totally different politics and (the pandemic aside) totally different challenges.

The differing politics in each of the four Home Countries can be summed up by considering, for the last time in this essay, the position of the Labour Party.  In Wales it is in power and in the ascendancy; in England it is in opposition and in decline; in Scotland it is fast becoming irrelevant; and in Northern Ireland it does not have and has never had any significant presence at all[1].

The differences are even more stark when one considers the four nations’ main challenges.  While England faces the task of working out its place in the world post Brexit, in Wales the focus is more on combating poverty and reversing a long-term economic decline, and in Northern Ireland the urgent need is to make the Protocol work and free the Province from the burdens that Brussels and London have so unthinkingly imposed on trade across the Irish Sea.  And in Scotland, the issue is once again summed up in the one word Independence.

With all due respect to the other three parts of the UK, it is politics in Scotland that we will focus on for the rest of this essay.  In our view the question of Scottish Independence is the dominant political issue facing the UK in the coming decade, and – though this is more of a judgment call – Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, is the most interesting and most impressive politician on the British political scene.  She is certainly one of the most successful, being without serious opposition in either her party, having seen off Alex Salmond, the legal system, having survived a potentially very damaging challenge to the way she and her party have operated, or the country she governs, as she embarks on her third term as head of the Scottish government.

Part of her success at the recent election was to be expected.  It is hardly a new concept that when life is in general getting better and people are becoming more optimistic, incumbent governments tend to do well, and the vaccine-induced feelgood factor duly helped the SNP to increase their votes and grip on power in Scotland just as it did the Conservatives in England and the Labour Party in Wales.

But this is to underplay Sturgeon’s campaigning skills.  The SNP has been in government in Scotland for 14 years, but she was able to overcome both the natural sense of fatigue that all long-standing governments face and a very mixed record, in which unsolved problems in education, transport, housing, health (especially the high level of drug-related deaths), the police and the economy generally are all mounting.  Partly this was done by offering the electorate two faces:  to those who want independence but were disappointed with her administration’s track record she said “ignore the economy, a vote for the SNP is a vote for Scottish Independence”, while those who approved of her administration’s achievements but remain unconvinced on independence were told to “ignore the independence rhetoric, a vote for the SNP is a vote for continuing our domestic policies”[2].

This was then combined with a narrative that claimed responsibility for every success (without mentioning that many of them either came directly from or were paid for by the UK government), and put the blame for every failure on London not allowing the Scots to run their own affairs as they would wish.

So be it:  Sturgeon is hardly the first politician to use different arguments with different parts of the electorate, nor the first to claim that every success is down to their efforts alone and every failure is because of others.  And the political art of blaming a remote and uncaring higher authority for all one’s ills has a long precedent – the UK government has used Brussels as the whipping boy in exactly this way for decades.  The more important question now is, what is Boris Johnson going to do to combat the SNP’s demands.

So far, all the signs are that the UK government has very little idea what to do and almost no concrete plan except bribery – the continuation of showering the Scots with far more public money per capita than any other part of the country, more than much poorer regions and way in excess of the tax revenue Westminster receives from Scotland[3].

It is easy to understand the logic of the policy – the EU does exactly the same, splashing its largesse and its flag of 12 gold stars on blue all over public works throughout the Union – but it is very difficult to see why anyone in Westminster thinks it will work.  Scotland already gets a disproportionate share of UK government spending, but this has not in the past created any noticeable warm feelings towards London; and furthermore, it seriously risks igniting a strong backlash in the poorer areas of England and putting at risk Johnson’s “levelling up” policy on which the retention of his newly-won “red wall” seats in the north of England and the future of his government will depend.

Meanwhile the Scottish economy is distorted ever further, the imbalance between taxation receipts and public spending ever more extended, and a realistic assessment of what an independent Scotland’s budget might look like ever more difficult to determine.  And of course in the meantime, everything that goes well in Scotland is “because of the SNP”, and everything that goes wrong “we would put right if we were free from London’s control”.

We think the UK government needs a radical change of approach if it wants actually to win the argument over Scotland’s future rather than just delay what too many commentators are beginning to see as inevitable.  And in a nutshell, that approach should change to taking Sturgeon seriously and at her word, and conceding that if the Scottish people want a referendum, they cannot in a democracy be denied one for ever and they should be allowed to hold one.

But before any referendum is held the UK government should require that the two sides negotiate – down to the last jot and tittle – what the post-independence terms and arrangements would be should Scotland vote to leave.  Only when the terms are finalised and agreed should the referendum be allowed.  Citizenship, residence rights, defence and military bases, borders and cross-border trade (both across the intra-Britain land border and Scotland’s position with regards to UK trade deals with other countries), the currency and above all the question of the economy and how Scotland would begin to balance its bloated budget – all need resolving and on all of them the Scottish people deserve answers before they are asked to vote.

Who in Scotland could complain?  It would show that we have all learnt the lesson of the EU referendum, which is that voting before you know what independence means is to buy a pig in a poke, and it would ensure that the Scottish people would be voting in full knowledge of the facts rather than in an atmosphere of wild claims, half-truths and outright lies.  Put like that, it is very difficult for any serious politician to argue that the alternative is in any way to be preferred.

Moreover London should allow Sturgeon as long as it takes to resolve all the issues.  That is fair – undoing a Union of over 300 years cannot be done overnight and needs careful thought.  But she would be caught.  The more she tries to hurry the negotiations the worse the terms she is likely to have to agree to; the more she tries to secure a good deal the longer it will take before the referendum could be held – and the more time the Scottish electorate will have to see through the SNP’s claims of competency as an administration, and the English will have to demonstrate quite how damaging a vote to leave would be.

It will be claimed that even to consider starting independence negotiations with Edinburgh would be to give the idea, and the SNP, a credibility and respect they do not deserve.  But that horse has long since bolted – if anyone in England still thinks that the SNP is not serious and that if they ignore calls for a referendum then the desire for independence will go away, they simply have not been following politics north of the Border at all.

No, the Scots cannot be ignored and will not be bought off.  The drive for Scottish independence can only be countered by a determined, rigorous and honest demonstration of exactly what that independence will entail.

And if after that the Scots still decide to leave, they should be allowed to go, with England’s blessing and goodwill.


[1]              We have never understood why the main British parties do not have a presence in or put candidates up for election in Northern Ireland.  Nothing tells the Northern Irish that they are “not fully part of the UK” more than this inability to vote for the make-up of the government of their own country.  And while the British parties may stand little chance of winning now, over time if they build a presence they may build a following, and perhaps even in the future an alternative narrative to the sterile tribal politics the Province currently endures.

[2]              To nobody’s surprise, the moment the election was won the claim that “a vote for the SNP is a vote for continuing our domestic policies” was dropped almost completely and the dominant theme became exclusively “a vote for the SNP is a vote for Scottish Independence”.  As we say, not a surprise at all!

[3]              I have to say I find it amusing that when 1,000 years ago the English faced uncomfortable demands from a people to their north – in the earlier case the marauding Danes – they paid them huge sums in Danegeld to persuade them go away.  Now London seems to want to pay the Scots huge sums to persuade them stay.  It is likely to prove just as ineffective.