Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
The Prime Minister’s reset has had immediate effects on Scotland. Out with “devolution is a disaster”, in with a “Union task force” (£). And in the Financial Times to boot, no longer boycotted by the No 10 media operation, but graced by a Prime Ministerial op-ed.
Details about the task force, which is to include English, Welsh and Scottish Tory MPs, are scarce. As the party with no Northern Irish MPs, it would be wise to add a Northern Irish peer, and David Trimble is an obvious candidate. Its mission to make the emotional and cultural case for the Union is welcome. Merely pointing to the fiscal benefits of Scottish membership of the Union is too easily spun as “we pay for you, so shut up” (a problem that scuppered Arthur Balfour’s unsuccessful “killing home rule with kindness” in relation to Ireland at the turn of the century).
The Scottish experience in the Union in the 100 years before the independence push has been a good deal better than the Irish (it’s only a decade since the last Scottish Prime Minister), but that hasn’t stopped the SNP dominating Scottish politics as Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond dominated the Irish scene.
Unlike Redmond and Parnell, the SNP doesn’t hold the balance of power at Westminster, but it has, because of the devolution, a platform to show how it would govern an independent Scotland.
Though it might irk unionists, who can point at failures in education, a self-inflicted wound over trans self-ID, the grubby mess involving Alex Salmond’s trial, and cruelty of anti-Covid measures applied to Scottish students, it’s a platform the SNP has made good use of.
It took maximum advantage of two events — Brexit and the Covid pandemic — to switch the balance of risk away from independence and convince Scots that leaving the Union had become the safer option. Brexit moved public opinion to give independence a slight edge. Covid has turned that slender lead into a solid advantage of around ten points.
The effect of Brexit will not be possible to address in the short term. There’s simply a difference of belief between the Government, which was elected to get Brexit done, after all, and Scottish public opinion, which is strongly against it, but safety and predictability are things the Government should, in principle, be able to get a handle on.
Number 10 has come in for heavy criticism for its management of the pandemic, which, however true it may be in an absolute sense, feels distinctly unfair when compared to Scotland.
England’s record has not been particularly good, but then neither has that of France, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, the United States, or most pointedly Scotland. All have had high death rates, found their test and trace systems overwhelmed, and struggled to gain acceptance for public health restrictions. These serious problems are common to almost all Western countries. An independent Scotland is just as likely to suffer from them.
What the SNP has been able to do has been to communicate stability (something that comes more naturally to Sturgeon than the bombastic Salmond). Unlike the Government in London, which has veered between seriousness and hope, Sturgeon has been consistently sober and gloomy. She has avoided overpromising on test and trace, and did not convert useful rapid antigen testing into a grossly over-the-top operation moonshot. This has allowed her to be perceived as far more competent despite having the same Western Standard Average performance in managing the disease.
There is, however, a useful lesson to be drawn from this. Projecting competence does not require achieving excellence. The public will react positively to a government that provides a realistic assessment of the difficulties faced. They understand that governing a country isn’t like pitching for investment in a start up, and would prefer a tolerably realistic assessment of the difficulties ahead then to endure an emotional rollercoaster of hopes raised only to be dashed.
This is not to rule out inspiration as a part of political rhetoric, but it is best for mobilising support for very long-term struggles, like the fight against climate change.
Scots go to the polls next May, and whether the SNP can get an overall majority at Holyrood will be a key test of their movement. Douglas Ross has an uphill battle to stop them, but reset towards realism from the Government could just convince wavering Scots that it’s safe to stay in.