GE 2017 #7: The Scottish Conservatives’ Shameless Campaign

The Scottish Conservatives have made their pitch to voters that they will oppose an IndyRef#2 and fight for the Union. That’s pretty jaw-dropping given that it is the Conservatives who have been (and who, with their Hard Brexit, probably still are) the greatest threat to the Union.

Alex Salmond had said that IndyRef#1 would settle the issue of independence for a generation. And so it might well have done, had the political settlement in the UK not have changed out of all recognition as a result of Brexit. Now the SNP can credibly argue that the Scottish people are facing a future significantly different from the possible futures they reasonably had in mind at the time of IndyRef#1. Further, the SNP makes the unanswerable point that Scotland is being dragged out of the EU contrary to the wishes of the majority of (voting) Scots. Once more the question of independence dominates Scottish politics (and should dominate UK politics). Again, the Union is seriously threatened.

And, of course, it is the Conservatives that are to blame for all this. We needn’t have had an EU referendum; it was, after all, held by David Cameron for reasons of internal Conservative party management and for a perceived political advantage at the 2015 general election. Further, the threat to the Union might have been avoided by organising the EU referendum so that Brexit would only have proceeded if each country in the UK voted in favour. That idea was rejected by the David Cameron. And then there were bungled negotiations in Europe and an inept Remain campaign. The charges against the Conservatives are both grave and legion. It is a bitter irony that the Conservative and Unionist Party has brought the UK to the brink of disintegration.

There is something shameless and offensive in the Scottish Conservatives seeking to obtain political advantage from a parlous state of affairs that their party created. But I suppose we are where we are. The Conservatives may have put the Union at risk but conceivably the Conservatives might still be the best party to save the Union. Clearly, the only thing that would pretty much take independence and an IndyRef#2 off the agenda would be a decision to stay in the EU after all. That would probably require an EURef#2. The Liberal Democrats support a second referendum when the terms of departure from the EU become clear. The SNP’s position is unclear. Labour and Conservative currently reject the idea of a second EU Ref. There are strong arguments for a second referendum: no one has voted for any particular Brexit. Pressure for a further referendum may build as the demerits of Brexit become clear. Labour MPs might be swayed; but Conservatives probably won’t. More Conservative MPs will make EURef#2 less likely, will make Brexit all the more certain and independence more likely. Let’s assume, though, that Brexit will happen come what may. When it does, the important point is that the harder the Brexit, the stronger the SNP’s argument for IndyRef#2 and for independence. If the UK stayed in the single market and the customs union, the SNP’s case would be significantly weakened. The critical question then is will additional Scottish Conservative MPs make a Hard Brexit more or less likely. And here we hit a large number of imponderables. Where do possible winning Scottish Tory candidates stand on Brexit, the single market and the Hard/Soft Brexit continuum? Does it make any difference? Would a Conservative majority in Westminster swollen with Scottish Conservatives encourage Mrs May towards the most destructive of Brexits or would it strengthen her hand to rein in her Hard Brexit colleagues (if that’s what she wants to do)? What, indeed, is Mrs May’s preferred outcome? Does she want to compromise with the EU to achieve a softer Brexit or is she content that her apparently uncompromising attitude towards the EU will lead to a rock-hard, car-crash, Brexit?

The problem for Scottish voters (and for that matter other UK voters) is that we just don’t know the answers to these questions and we are highly unlikely to find out before 8 June. The PM’s idea of an election campaign seems to be to avoid voters, shut down meaningful political debate as far as possible and communicate in trite and vacuous sound-bites. On Brexit negotiations, she won’t tell us what her goals are; we are simply to trust her; that “Brexit means Brexit” ought to be enough for us ingrates.

What we do know is that the PM is unreliable. She was against a third runway at Heathrow and then she wasn’t. She said she would not call a general election before 2020 but she did. She was pro-Remain but since becoming leader of the Conservative Party has ostensibly embraced a Hard no-deal-is-better-than-a bad-deal Brexit. But the Scottish Conservatives do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. We can’t be certain but more Scottish Conservative MPs probably increases the chances of a harder Brexit. The better bet for Unionists is to vote to try to maximise the number of non-Conservative Unionists, either Liberal Democrats or Labour. But what if you live in a SNP/Conservative marginal where a vote for Labour or Liberal would be a wasted vote? In those seats, it’s far from obvious that Unionists should vote for the Unionist candidate. On the one hand, the SNP will argue that each additional SNP MP strengthens the case for IndyRef#2 but, on the other, every non-Tory MP weakens Mrs May’s hand, strengthens parliamentary opposition against a Hard Brexit and makes a Hard Brexit less likely, undermining the case for reopening the independence question and for IndyRef#2.

But there is a further argument for voting for anyone other than the Conservatives. Political theorists often discuss the expressive value of a vote. Even if it make no difference to the outcome of an election (or, by extension, to wider outcomes in society), an election is an opportunity to express an opinion. In this election, the Conservative and Unionist Party deserves a collective raspberry from Unionists for having got us into the mess and for its casual disregard of the importance of the Union.

If you support the Union, the last party to vote for (and that includes the SNP in the available options!) is the Conservative Party.


GE 2017 #6: PM Gives the Lie to the Case for Brexit

The Prime Minister probably didn’t realise that her speech on the steps of Downing Street today – on the dissolution of parliament – undermined her colleagues’ arguments for Brexit during the referendum [see GE 2017 #5 below].  We were told that Brexit would lead to a happier, more independent, more prosperous Britain – period.  But Mrs May now asserts that that happy, independent and prosperous future is not guaranteed after all:  it is contingent upon Brexit negotiations being conducted by her and her “strong and stable” government.

So we had been told that Brexit = Wonderful Future.  Now Mrs May claims, quite differently, that only Brexit + Mrs May = Wonderful Future.

GE 2017 #5: Brexit Negotiations and the PM’s Inconsequential Posturing

The PM asks who will negotiate the better deal for Britain:  she or Jeremy Corbyn.  She takes pride , it would seem, in being described as “that b****y difficult woman”.  It is questionable whether portraying oneself as difficult and unreasonable is the best way to go into negotiations.  Putting the other party on their guard may not be the best way to sweet talk them into concessions.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Jeremy Corbyn could not negotiate his way out of a paper bag and that Mrs May is the firmest and most adroit negotiator on the planet.  Fine, but of course, that’s all completely irrelevant:  the EU are going to give us the trade deal we want in any event.  Whatever happens – even if the withdrawal negotiations get nowhere and we refuse to cough up any exit fee – the EU27 are going to give the UK a great free trade deal that will safeguard the British economy.  We know this because John Redwood, David Davis and Boris Johnson told us that the EU27 will give us what we want in any event.

During the referendum campaign, David Davis explained that “there is almost certainly going to be a deal, one that maintains a free market between the EU and the UK”.[1]  Boris Johnson told us that “[w]e will trade [with our fellow Europeans] as much as ever before, if not more”.[2]  John Redwood wrote that “We can look forward to the rest of the EU wanting trade arrangements that preserve their present access to the UK market as they sell us so much more than we sell them.”[3]

[1] Speech – 26 May 2016 see

[2] Speech – 9 May 2016 see

[3] Blog – 25 April 2017 see

GE 2017 #3: The Conservatives Continue to Be the Main Threat to the Union

Last time out, at the 2015 general election, one of the main Tory lines of attack – an attack which pollsters and commentators thought was highly effective – was to argue that a hung parliament would mean a chaotic coalition of Labour and SNP.  It was argued that this would spark a constitutional crisis as the SNP would have a say on wholly English matters such as health and education.  Sir John Major opined that the SNP could hold a Labour government to ransom on a vote-by-vote basis.  He warned that the SNP represented a real and present danger to our future.

I bet he feels like an ass now.  As many of us argued in 2015 – and as has become painfully apparent over the last 2 years – the real threat to the Union in 2015 was a Conservative win not a Labour one.  It is the Conservatives who held an EU referendum for essentially self-serving party interests.  It is the Conservative leadership that must take the overriding blame for losing that referendum.  It is Brexit that has given the SNP the basis to argue that circumstances have so materially changed since the 2014 independence referendum, a referendum which was supposed to settle matters for a generation, that a new referendum is necessary.  It is Mrs May’s preferred Hard Brexit that is yet more grist to the SNP mill.

Shamelessly, the Conservatives have returned to the coalition-of-chaos motif.  I guess as it worked well for them last time, it is too tempting to pass up this time.  But let’s be clear:  Brexit and particularly a Hard Brexit make Scottish secession more likely – and by extension a Tory government remains the greatest risk to the Union.

As a former leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, I trust Sir John sees the bitter irony.

GE 2017 #2: Time for a Negative Campaign

Those opposing Mrs May’s Conservatives must run a campaign that is unrelentingly and unremittingly negative.  I don’t mean that they should dissemble and misrepresent:  a campaign can be both negative and have integrity.

Jeremy Corbyn’s fantasy world aside, this election is all about Brexit.  Brexit and what kind of Brexit are the defining issues of our time.  Our economic prosperity, our relations with the rest of the world, our self-understanding and quite probably the very integrity of the UK all hinge upon the kind of Brexit that is negotiated with the EU.

Mrs May has expressly called this election to neuter opposition to her Brexit strategy (or to her lack of one).  Whatever vacuities may find their way into the Conservative manifesto – and, apparently, it’s a matter of “suggestions on a postcard, please” – Mrs May’s pitch is this:  trust me to manage and negotiate Brexit.

So be it.  But then it is a wholly legitimate response to point out, again and again and again, that Mrs May is not to be trusted.  She has proven herself not to be trustworthy.  She said that she would not hold an early election;  she has shamelessly broken that promise.  In public she offered lukewarm support to the Remain cause in the Brexit referendum;  in private she told Goldman Sachs bankers that the economic arguments for Remain were clear:  companies would leave Britain if Britain left the EU.

Her opponents should point out again and again that she does not deserve our trust because she won’t set out her Brexit negotiating position and we have no reason to think that she would stick to her guns anyway.  As the Conservative Matthew Parris states in today’s Times (Sat, 22 April 2017), “my fear is that she is not particularly attached to anything.”

And often enough, Theresa May is as steadfast as blancmange.  She was against a third runway at Heathrow, but then she wasn’t:  in autumn 2016 her apparent concerns had to give way so that she could demonstrate that post-Brexit Britain was still open for business.  When she became PM, she called in the planning application for Hinkley C, swayed no doubt by its mind-boggling expense and impracticality, only to kowtow to the Chinese when they made threatening noises about investment in a post-Brexit Britain.

Mrs May is just about the last person one would want to negotiate Brexit.

Mrs May wants this election to be a referendum on her leadership and trustworthiness; so let’s make it one.

EU Referendum #2: Ireland

I wonder if those of us who live in England are becoming more parochial.  Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK and yet, on this side of the Irish Sea, there seems to have been little discussion about the impact Brexit might have on Ulster.  Could a UK departure from the EU herald a return to darker times?

For all of its imperfections, the Good Friday agreement is something of which we in these islands can be justly proud.  The violent days of the Troubles seem ever more distant. Undoubtedly both sides of the sectarian divide have had to make concessions.  Unionists have had to accept power-sharing with Sinn Fein;  nationalists have had to accept the indefinite deferment of a united Ireland.  Arguably, nationalists and republicans have made the greater concession.  But that concession has been made easier by the development of cross-border institutions, by the dismantling of security along the border and by the fact that both North and South are part of the EU.  Each of those things makes the continuing affront to republicans of British sovereignty in the North far easier to bear:  Ireland is a lot more together than it was.  Critically, given those developments, sovereignty becomes less significant.  There is far less reason to man the barricades and to pursue “extra-political activity”.

So what would be the impact of Brexit on the Irish settlement?  There is surely a risk that power-sharing will collapse and that Northern Ireland will drift back towards the state of low-level civil war that blighted the last 30-odd years of the 20th century.

That power-sharing is precarious is clear from recent history.  And one must concede that power-sharing is likely to remain fragile whether the UK stays in or leaves the EU.  The critical question is whether, if power-sharing collapses (or, perhaps, when power-sharing collapses), the parties will, after a lot of huffing and puffing, conclude that power-sharing is the only way forward and resurrect the institutions;  or will centrifugal forces set Ireland once more on a self-destructive course?

It is a legitimate concern that Brexit would strengthen those centrifugal forces.  Consider the pressures arising from the immigration issue.  If the Leave campaign wins, there can be little doubt that immigration would have been a critical issue in determining the outcome.  Post-Brexit UK governments would face intense political pressure to control immigration.  And that might well mean policing what would then be the UK’s one land border with the EU, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.  A judgment would have to be made about the extent to which the Republic effectively policed entry at its own ports – a judgement as to whether Irish immigration checks were a sufficient proxy for UK border control.  It is quite conceivable that a UK government would feel the need to plug the gap represented by the Irish border.  And if the Republic subsequently joined Schengen – it is not a member at present – it is hard to see how the UK government could withstand pressure to impose border controls between Ulster and the Republic.

Again, it is hard to judge whether the reintroduction of border controls between North and South would significantly destabilise the current political settlement in Ulster.  But there is surely a risk that it would.  Those in favour of Leave ought to explain why, all things considered, that is a risk worth running.  They will need to show that either the chance of the peace process failing is very small (i.e. it is a risk worth running because the risk is very unlikely to materialise) or that the other benefits of leaving the EU would outweigh the loss of peace in Ireland if the risk did materialise.



EU Referendum #1: a Fortnight to Save the Union? [That’s the UK not the EU!]

One thing all sides seem to agree on is that there is a lot at stake on 23 June.  What has not been highlighted is that the UK itself is at stake.  The referendum has created an existential threat to the nation.  If we vote leave, there is a good possibility that the SNP will achieve its dream of an independent Scotland.  Curiously, the EU Referendum is a belated chance for the rest of the UK to vote in a referendum on Scottish independence.  The rest of us (that is those Britons who don’t live in Scotland) can if we wish use our vote to express our view as to whether Scotland should be an independent country.

My argument is this:  (1) even if the UK as a whole votes to leave, Scotland will have voted to remain in the EU;  (2) in the event of a vote to leave, the SNP will probably insist upon another independence referendum;  (3) there is good chance of a further independence referendum;  (4) there is a probably a better than even chance that the outcome of a second independence referendum would be a vote in favour of secession;  (5) the break up of the UK would be a bad thing.

I accept that, even if this argument is made out, it is not determinative of the correct way to vote.  Conceivably, it would still be right to run the risk of the break up of the Union; conceivably, gains from leaving the EU outweigh the break up of the UK:  better a rump-UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) out of the EU with an independent Scotland (quite possibly re-negotiating entry to the EU) than a UK remaining in the EU.

Be that as it may, the possible break up of the UK (if my argument is right) is something that ought to go into the mix when voters decide whether it is morally better to vote Remain or Leave.

As for limb (5) of my argument, there is not space here to explore that assertion.  Given space, I would argue that nationalism is a morally dubious political theory.  I would argue that one can and should protect and celebrate cultural identity and cultural distinctives without needing to assert political independence.  [I accept that asserting political independence may, on occasion, be an appropriate response to national oppression but are Scots really an oppressed minority?]  I would argue that the UK is better together and that the break up of the UK would embolden more dubious nationalisms across Europe and the rest of the world.  [For further comment see my blogs on the Scottish independence referendum.]

So to the rest of my argument.  Realistically, point (1) is beyond dispute.  Pollsters and commentators are united in concluding that voters living in Scotland will vote to remain in the EU.  There has not been a single poll north of the border indicating that a majority of voters in Scotland would vote to leave the EU;  rather polls consistently show around a 2:1 majority for remaining in the EU.

As for (2), Nicola Sturgeon has said, on record, that if the UK voted to leave the EU, a second independence referendum “would be the demand of the Scottish people”.  She has also said that she will “obviously” want to look at independence again following an EU leave vote in order to protect Scotland’s membership of the EU.  It is likely that the SNP would not demand a second independence vote in the event of a leave vote.  They will if they are confident they will win it.

Points (3) and (4) are not quite so easy to make out.  As for (3), a second independence referendum can only be held with the consent of the UK government and UK parliament.  For current purposes, a judgment has to made as to whether the UK government and UK parliament could withstand the demands of the SNP for a new referendum.  I think it doubtful.  Ms Sturgeon would have a very strong hand.  She would have the “D” word in her armoury.  She would point to the injustice of Scotland being removed from the EU in the face of the desire of the overwhelming majority of people living in Scotland.  She would point out that the circumstances after a leave vote were quite different to the circumstances in 2014 and that a new vote was necessary.  It is not hard to imagine the leaders of the other political parties in Scotland buckling.  [Kezia Dugdale, the leader of Scottish Labour, has made inconsistent remarks about her attitude to independence if there was a Brexit vote.]  The UK government would then be faced with an invidious choice.  If it refused a referendum, there is every likelihood that the SNP’s support in Scotland would grow as it sought to foster and exploit a sense of Scottish resentment against “Westminster” and its undemocratic impositions.  If it refused a referendum, it is quite likely that support for independence would grow even further.  So while a second independence referendum is not inevitable, the chances of a new referendum are significant.

So what would the outcome of a referendum be?  Opinion polls since 2014 seem to indicate that there remains a slight Unionist majority.  Quite probably there has been little change in the 45/55 yes please/no thanks split since September 2014.  Would the UK leaving the EU significantly change things?  Is it more likely that yes-to-independence voters would switch to no thanks because of the attraction of being out of the EU or more likely that no voters would change to being pro-independence because of a desire to remain in the EU?  Almost certainly (given the large majority in Scotland for remaining in the EU), the move would be from no to yes, increasing the likelihood of a pro-independence vote.  It’s simply a matter of statistics.

I accept that it is by no means certain that there would be a second independence referendum or that the Yes campaign would win it.  But the chances of a second independence vote and that vote being in favour of independence are significant.  I do not see how anyone could reasonably argue otherwise.

This whole referendum campaign is about risk and likelihoods.  What is the likelihood of significant goods or ills arising from a vote to leave (or a vote to remain)?  But one thing is clear:  a proper consideration of the risks for and against leaving is incomplete until we factor in the significant risk that Brexit = the break up of the UK.