Whither Unity? How the supporters of the UK are dividing into ‘Unionists’ and ‘anti-Nationalists’.
It is no secret that supporters of the United Kingdom are not renowned for their unity. A central premise of the new Alliance 4 Unity is that the Scottish anti-separation parties have their votes split three ways in every election, while the SNP hoovers up all support from nationalists, plus any voters for whom nationalism is not currently a turn-off. But, as minds focus and battleplans are drawn, it is becoming clear that there is a new, 2-way split in the indysceptic .
The divide is still fundamentally strategic, but is less about electoral vagaries than it is about messaging. Specifically, how best to communicate opposition to ending Britain? By what language, symbols and storytelling? Over this, two broad camps appear to be developing.
Firstly, we have the Unionists. This type of indysceptic straightforwardly embraces the Union and the traditional symbols and institutions of Britain. A key plank of the strategy so far is to increase the visibility of the Union in Scotland, namely highlighting its very practical benefits by emblazoning major GERS-funded projects with the Union flag, much as the EU was fond of doing (though here with the added benefit of being true). As you might hope, the leaders of the Conservative and Unionist Party are front and centre of this approach, with Douglas Ross praising the “unashamed” effort to increase the “visual connection” between London and Scotland. Regardless of what happened in that field in Wester Ross, the Prime Minister’s decision to visit, holiday and generally be in Scotland more often is another piece of that puzzle.
Most of the analytical heavy-lifting for Unionism is shouldered by — as ever — Henry Hill. He response to a Times piece by Kenny Farquharson arguing the Union flag has no place in preserving the Union was typically damning: “From the intellectual tradition that brought you ‘Keep giving away powers and this will fix itself somehow’ comes ‘abandon your symbols and let the Scottish Govt keep taking credit for your work and investments’”. Which also neatly summarises Hill’s chief bugbear of many years: the consistent flow of powers from Westminster to Holyrood in the hope of appeasing nationalism out of existence. Devosceptism is indeed shaping up as another Unionist policy feature: Downing Street has been bullish over the UK Internal Market Bill, and Ross made a name for himself in the Commons with his one-man takedown of the Nationalists’ failure to provide evidence for a single power being ‘grabbed’.
But to return to the Farquharson article, it garnered a very different response from a man no less opposed to the breakup of the UK. Jamie Blackett agreed that “we do need to focus on Unity rather Unionism. That’s why it’s called Alliance4Unity.” Blackett can speak with some justification on A4U, because he’s the Deputy Leader.
Others go further. The tirelessly omnipresent Effie Deans not only does not call herself a Unionist but doesn’t believe the Union as such exists. Using a slightly arcane parentage analogy, she sees the Act of Union as exactly that, an act; a marriage between England and Scotland that produced the child of Britain. So, I suppose, to vote Yes would not equate to Scotland divorcing England, but something more like child-murder. Less Ibsen and more Euripides.
But the spiritual home of Brits who reject the language of the Union can be found at the website for The Majority. This interesting group promises to “use better psychology to specifically target Nationalism”, including special attention to language. The logic seems to be that Nationalist terms trap opponents of separatism in their narratives, with ‘Unionism’ sadly playing into this in particular: “Stop Nationalists defining us by breaking their narratives, slurs and propaganda: We are not Unionists, Red Tories or British Nationalists: We are simply anti-Nationalists.” This then, is the anti-Nationalist school of indysceptic thought, emphasising opposition to division and separatism before identification with the Union.
Alliance4Unity doesn’t completely decline the mantle of the Union. A joint letter to The Spectator from Blackett and his leader George Galloway uses the term. But mentions on the hyperactive Twitter account are few and it is significant by its absence in this rallying cry:
Galloway knows how to talk up Britain in terms other than flag-waving Unionist ones, and a good thing too. We all know the pitfalls of defining a campaign by what it’s against rather than what it’s for. But fierce opposition to Scottish Nationalism has been a hallmark of Galloway’s career. It is only fitting then that he should be the public face of the anti-Nationalist wing of the indysceptic counterattack.
Does any of this solve indyscepticism’s old electoral conundrum though? Two camps aren’t much better than three, and in any case with A4U, the Tories, Labour and Lib Dem it now looks like a four-horse race for second place. There are no clear signs of the A4U’s proposal of a clear run at the list vote being taken up. For now we will have to make do with the news that Galloway has been ‘sounded out’ by Michael Gove.
But the prospect of a political pact between Gove and Galloway does inspire the reasonable hope that the two sides of indyscepticism need not be in competition, at least in the battle for hearts and minds. They can work in tandem or symbiosis. Anti-Nationalism can win back left-leaners who would usually balk at separatism, while Unionism can lift the spirits of the red white and blue true believers. If the sense of Scottish Britishness is to be rebuilt, it will be a multifaceted, non-party political process.
Indeed, plenty of Scottish Tories are seeing the value of Galloway, even to the point of joining him. Both Blackett and Deans are lifelong Conservatives, with the latter arguing the SNP can only be finally beaten from the Left. While the strategic divisions in the unity camp are some way off being resolved, its good to see unity of spirit at least. At last.