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.