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.

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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.