Faced with the realisation that they’ve broken the precioussssss union, the Conservatives have now come up with a master plan to save it. They’re going to use tax money paid by Scotland in order to tell Scotland how great it is being ignored by Westminster. That’ll see off those pesky nats, because sticking union flags on things is well known for its power of persuasion. Just ask Tesco.
According to reports, Theresa May called a special meeting of the cabinet in order to tackle what is being described as the greatest threat to the union since, well, the last time the Tories cocked it up. The only reason that there is a threat to the union, although those of us of a Scottish independence persuasion prefer to describe it as an indy opportunity, is because the governments of Theresa May and her predecessor David Cameron have systematically treated Scotland with contempt. And when they’re not actively treating Scotland like a recalcitrant child, they’re ignoring it.
If the Conservatives were really serious about tackling this existential threat to the precioussssss, you might think that the very first thing they’d be addressing is their own attitude towards Scotland and their own behaviour. You know, the root cause of the problem. But no. The only reason there’s an issue here is, according to the Tories, because Thatessempee keeps pointing out that if Scotland was independent, it wouldn’t get governments which ignore it and treat it with contempt. Or at least not for very long.
So having treated Scotland and the preciousssssss like an abused dug for the past few years, what’s really getting the goat of the Conservative party is not that they’ve suddenly seen the light and realised that their behaviour is unacceptable. Oh no, they’re fine with the way they’ve behaved. They’re perfectly OK with the fact that throughout this entire Brexit process the needs of Scotland have been marginalised and ignored. They’re cool with the fact that they’ve used Brexit as an excuse to undermine the devolution settlement. They’re quite mellow about having traduced all the promises that they made as a part of the Better Together campaign in order to get Scotland to vote against independence.
What’s getting them upset is that someone has been calling them out for bad behaviour and they have belatedly realised that the consequences are coming home to roost. It’s a bit like a bank robber complaining that they have to go to jail because the polis gave the newspapers and the telly news their description and not because they robbed a bank. The real villains here are the people calling out the villains.
The UK government is claiming that it is only spending some £100,000 annually on “promoting the union” out of an annual budget for promotional activities of £440 million. Presumably this £100,000 doesn’t include the £750,000 annually that David Mundell spends on spin doctors, the money that the Scotland Office spends on advertising, or the ever increasing bloat of a Scotland Office that does less and less except act as the voice of the Conservative government in Scotland and an advertising agency for all things Yookay. And which is funded out of money that would otherwise go to the Scottish government to be spent on public services in Scotland.
The amount of public money which the Scotland Office spends on spin doctors has gone up a whopping sevenfold under the Conservatives. According to figures obtained by SNP MP Deidre Brock, the amount that the Scotland Office has spent on spin doctors and public relations has risen from £108,439 in 2010/11 to £757,868 in 2016/17. In addition, the Scotland Office also spends a fair wodge of dosh on advertising on social media. In the month of March 2019 alone, the Scotland Office spent almost £11,000 on advertising on social media. According to an investigation by The Ferret, a previous social media advertising campaign by the Scotland Office was targetted at small business owners in David Mundell’s constituency. A cynic might imagine that the Fluffy One was using public money in order to secure his own career.
The Conservatives are already doing their damnedest to promote the union to Scotland, and it’s not working. The reason it’s not working is because the Conservatives are doing even more to destroy it. They’re putting up pro-UK posters in the living room with one hand, while with the other they’re undermining the foundations of the house.
The Tories call themselves the party of the union, but they act as the party of British centralism. That was fine for decades, because unionism in Scotland rested upon the comforting myth that Scotland was a voluntary equal partner in the United Kingdom. That was, and is, the defining belief of Scottish Unionism. Scotland, they tell everyone else and themselves, is not a colony. Scotland was an enthusiastic participant in the British Empire. Scotland, they assert, was never a possession of the Empire but rather a partner in doing the possessing.
Unfortunately, this was never the understanding of the union that was current amongst the Anglocentric British establishment. The belief in England was always that the UK was simply Greater England. The UK consisted of England and those lesser nations which had been compelled by one means or another to throw their lot in with England.
When there was an Empire to exploit, the different Scottish and English understandings of the union were unquestioned and unexamined. After the dissolution of the Empire the disconnection could easily be ignored while there was no Scottish Parliament to articulate Scotland’s political sense of itself, and while Scotland and the rest of the UK both swung between voting Tory and voting Labour. The cracks only started to appear after the demand for Scottish self government arose in the latter part of the 20th century, and only grew wider after Tony Blair’s government introduced an assymetric form of devolution.
The cracks grew wider still during the independence referendum and its aftermath, when the parties forming the Better Together campaign turned their back on the Vow and complacently thought that the No vote meant a return to business as usual. Scotland was back in its box, and could be ignored once again. But the independence movement born during the referendum campaign ensured that the lid of the box was kept loose.
In order to keep Scotland tied to Westminster, we were told that it was only because of the UK that we were a part of the EU. The message that leaving the UK meant leaving the EU was central to the Better Together campaign. Scots were taught that their country was poor, semi-bankrupt, and dependent on the largesse of a kind and benevolent UK. But this only provoked an unexpected reaction in England, when England started to grow resentful at what it saw as Scottish privilege that English voters were being told they paid for, privileges which were being lavished on ungrateful Scots.
All this simmering discontent with the union metaphorically exploded with Brexit. The Conservatives brought about a referendum on EU membership in order to tackle internal Tory disputes between the Europhile and Europhobe wings of that party. After a defeat in the EU referendum that the then Prime Minister David Cameron had neither expected nor prepared for, his successor continued to treat Brexit as an internal matter for the Conservative party.
Despite the fact that the vote to leave won only a very narrow victory, Theresa May set out to placate the extreme europhobes on her back benches. She set out entirely unnecessary red lines, and the definitions of soft and hard brexit were moved ever further in one direction, in the direction of right wing Brextremism and ever further away from what Scotland could accept. This was only exacerbated after Theresa May lost her majority in the General Election she had promised not to call. She continued as though nothing had changed. The only difference was that now she required the support of the DUP.
Heavily remain voting Scotland was ignored, along with all the other remain voters in the UK. The proposal from the Scottish Government for a differential treatment of Scotland along with Northern Ireland never even got a reply. The Conservatives had never been happy with devolution, and leapt upon Brexit as their opportunity to recentralise the UK. The Brexit vote gave them a convenient excuse to undermine the devolution settlement and grab devolved powers for Westminster, all the while mendaciously claiming that they were giving Holyrood more powers.
What really happened was this. When devolution was established, the new Scottish Parliament was given control of all powers of government except for those which were explicitly to be reserved to Westminster – such as broadcasting, international relations, defence, the social security system, most tax powers, the constitution, etc. All other powers were devolved. However as a part of the EU, a number of these functions were exercised by EU institutions. In essence, these powers were still Scotland’s, but they were being held in trust for Scotland by the EU. After Brexit, Westminster took it upon itself to decide unilaterally which of these powers it was keeping for itself, and which it would allow Holyrood to keep. And then David Mundell told us that we had no grounds for complaint because Holyrood was getting extra powers.
Thanks to the Tories and the consistent way in which they have placed the interests of their party before the interests of Scotland and before the interests of the UK, the devolution settlement is being undermined, and Scotland is facing the prospect of crashing out of the EU without a deal.
The UK is indeed under immense strain. On the one hand the Tories have created an England which is resentful of what it sees as Scottish privilege, and whose Brexit supporters would prefer to see Scotland go than to give up on Brexit. On the other hand the Tories have created a Scotland which is resentful because it is being wrenched out of the EU even though the Conservatives told Scotland that the only way to remain in the EU was to vote against independence. On top of that, Scotland is seeing its precious devolution settlement being undermined and traduced and no longer has confidence that it will be able to continue in its current form in a centralising post-Brexit Britain.
All this is the creation of the Conservative party. They did this. This is their doing. In pursuit of their own short term party interests the Tories dug into the very core of the union between Scotland and the rest of the UK and destroyed its foundations. The cracks are wide and growing ever wider. The chasm between the Scottish and English conceptions of what this so-called union means cannot be papered over with some union flag posters and a spot of rebranding. It won’t be bridged by blaming the SNP and the Scottish independence movement.
A cosmetic exercise by the Tories won’t succeed in propping up an edifice which they themselves have brought to the point of collapse. You don’t save a structurally unsound building with a lick of paint and some new wallpaper. It’s too late to save the UK. The Tories have exposed its true nature. They are the unwitting midwives of Scottish independence. Because of the actions of the Conservatives themselves, there’s now far too many rebellious Scots to shush.
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