There are long term and short term lessons to be drawn from last week’s elections. In the short term, there are now serious questions about the position of Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, who pins the blame for the catastrophic performance the Scottish Tories at last week’s local elections on Boris Johnson’s partygate lies and law breaking while continuing to back him as Prime Minister. It’s a fundamentally contradictory position from a Scottish leader who first demanded Johnson’s resignation and then did a humiliating U-turn, proving that Jacob Rees-Mogg was accurate when he dismissed Ross as a lightweight.
It’s now an open question whether the Tories, who are typically ruthless when it comes to ridding themselves of leaders whom they consider to be an electoral liability, will get rid of Ross before they get rid of Johnson. There are already rumours that Scottish Conservative MSPs have had informal talks about replacing him. Ross’s spinelessness and poor leadership are being blamed for the party’s dismal showing on Thursday, when it was the only party with representation at Holyrood to lose council seats and register a decline in its percentage share of first preference votes.
Not only did the Scottish Tories haemorrhage council seats, in Edinburgh they also suffered the humiliation of plummeting to fourth place in terms in terms of votes and fifth place in terms of seats. In Glasgow they lost all of their seats but two, so are no longer a Conservative group but a Conservative tag team. However the greatest disaster for the party is that the gains that they made under Ruth Davidson have now been wiped out. The Tories have never had anything to offer Scotland apart from their knee jerk opposition to independence. Presenting themselves as the “party of Union” was the Scottish Tory USP and under Davidson the Scottish Conservatives managed to establish themselves as the dominant anti-independence party, pushing Labour into third place.
The Scottish Tories have now lost their prized position of the largest party opposed to independence to Labour, which has overtaken the Tories both in terms of vote share and in the number of councillors it got elected.
However there is also a more important long term pattern which these most recent elections have confirmed, and that is the continuing disintegration of the so-called Union. In Wales Plaid Cymru gained control of three councils. In Northern Ireland, for the first time ever since Britain carved the Unionist statelet out of Ireland with borders drawn in such a way as to supposedly guarantee a Unionist majority in perpetuity, an Irish republican party has come out on top in an election.
It is obvious that none of the British parties has any convincing plan or the political will to make the necessary structural and constitutional changes to the UK which would be needed in order to halt or reverse this decline. Labour keeps promising federalism, with its constitutional review headed by the discredited Gordon Brown who promised Scotland the same thing in 2014 but signally failed to deliver. The truth is that there is no appetite in England for such wide reaching constitutional changes, and very little interest in the political or constitutional demands of the other constituent parts of the UK. The UK already works for England, as it was designed to.
This is the biggest problem for traditional unionism, both in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. There is just no appetite in England for sacrificing English interests in order to placate a Scotland and Northern Ireland which they are convinced depend upon English tax funds. It may be a falsehood, but it is deeply engrained.
The Tories have neither the political interest nor the desire to make any changes to a system that already delivers them almost absolute power on a regular basis. They have no motivation to address the long term structural decline in Unionism. In lieu of any strategy to reverse that decline, they instead resort to the short term tactics of scaremongering, threats, obstructionism, and ever more desperate appeals to “patriotism” which manifest themselves in union flags, British nationalist exceptionalism,military parades, more union flags, the glorification of the imperial past and a royal family who grow more discredited with every passing scandal, and even more union flags, none of which has any appeal in Scotland outwith Tory voters and the dedicated followers of flute bands.
Opponents of independence might not wish to admit it to themselves, but they know that the so-called Union faces existential challenges for which its supporters have no practical solutions. This is why they increasingly react with hysteria out of all proportion to imaginary threats which a self-confident Unionism would either ignore, or even embrace as symbols of the Union’s ability to encompass Scottish nationhood.
We saw this recently with the over the top reaction to Billy Kay’s non-political speech in Holyrood when he used the Scots language to talk about the importance of the Scots language to Scottish culture and literature. For his pains Billy was subjected to a torrent of abuse from British nationalist ignoramuses who know nothing about the Scots language or linguistics in general. Similar abuse was also recently directed at a young female poet for having the temerity to use and take pride in Scots.
Despite the fact that the Scots language is the cultural heritage of everyone in Scotland, irrespective of their political views, this abuse overwhelmingly comes from individuals who identify as British nationalists and as opponents of independence. This is not a symptom of a confident and self-assured Unionism, rather it betokens a deep angst and a panic that the union is in mortal peril. This so-called union is so weak and fragile that it can be threatened by a poem.
Just this week we have a new example of Scottish Unionist panic. The National Museum of Scotland has announced that it will put the Declaration of Arbroath on public display in June and July next year. The document had been due to go on display in 2020 to mark its 700th anniversary. However, lockdown forced the exhibition to be postponed and it will now take place next year instead, cue howls of outrage from the Tories and their allies who are both outraged that a foundation document of Scottish statehood should be put on public display in a year when the Scottish Government plans to hold an independence referendum, and simultaneously eager to assert that it’s not such an important or meaningful document after all. That’s the mighty British state for you, put in danger by a Scots language poem and a 700 year old document which British nationalists insist isn’t important at all. If it’s not that important, why do they have an issue with it going on display? Answers on a postcard to Douglas Ross, contradictory positions are his thing.
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