Originally written for submission to ConHome, as part of my long-running and apparently doomed attempt to get published there.
Like most Conservatives from the “ardent unionist” branch of the party, I have long been vehemently opposed to a referendum on Scottish independence. I always thought that such a thing might call into question in the minds of the electorate the very existence of the United Kingdom in a permanent fashion, even if won, and as such should be fought against as hard as humanly possible.
That is, until recently. One of the reasons I decided to start blogging and getting seriously involved in the party is because I realised that unionism is too often a pessimistic, defensive creed, prone to bouts of apologetics and despair. This is one of the reasons I feel that, compared to the dynamism, charisma and vigour of some of its nationalist opponents, defenders of the union continue to struggle to make the case for it, and display little confidence in the ability of the union to survive or the capacity of the people to support it.
As an Irish citizen of Catholic heritage, perhaps my perspective on the union is different, although I’m not entirely alone in my diagnosis. However, it seems to me that unionist defensiveness is the reason that the initiative when it comes to the great constitutional questions about the fate of our nation continues to lie in the hands of the nationalists. The Conservative Party is still too determined to show that it accepts devolution to suggest ways in which it could be improved, and unionists are too preoccupied by the supposed fragility of the union to meet nationalists head on, for fear of upsetting people.
If – as is possible – Alex Salmond and the SNP win enough seats to gain a majority with the support of the also-separatist Scottish Green Party in the upcoming election, then we could very soon see a referendum north of the border on the continued existence of our United Kingdom. As a unionist, I find that prospect frightening. But get past that fear and there could be a great opportunity in this for Scottish Conservatism.
The reasons why the Scottish Conservatives have yet to rebound like their counter-parts in England and Wales are varied. In his latest article on Comment is Free, Kevin McKenna argues that it is because the party has not been right-wing enough. Another commonly accepted reason is that the SNP has displaced the Conservatives and attracted most of its centre-right votes. These are two maps, one from the Scottish Parliamentary election of 2007 and the other from the General Election of 1992, the last creditable Conservative performance north of the border. You will note that the great swathe of SNP constituencies in the centre and north-east of Scotland are seats that were formerly held by Conservative candidates.
The true answer is probably a fusion of both. The Scottish Conservative Party’s position has been eroded by being a largely irrelevant third party without a distinctive position, a crisis exacerbated by its own timidity. This is where a referendum on independence could help. Polling has consistently demonstrated that support for independence is stuck at roughly 20% of the population, and it is very likely that a referendum held soon could be won, and won convincingly, by the unionist parties. Such a reaffirmation of commitment would not only be good for the union, but by making the SNP the party of independence it could finally allow the Scottish Conservatives to reclaim their old heartlands amongst the pro-union centre-right in Scotland.
The SNP continue to poll substantially higher than the prospect of independence itself because they have become a broad-spectrum party of government and the natural recipient of anti-Labour voting. For too long the Scottish Conservatives have been unable to make political capital out of their unionism because, in a debate driven almost entirely on the nationalist’s initiative, they have feared appearing anti-devolution, and because the union was simply not a political issue. Without that, there was nowhere for the Conservatives to carve themselves a proper niche in Scottish politics. The centre-right Scottish electorate need a reason to distinguish between the SNP and the Conservatives if the latter is ever to rise again, and the Union is it.
The breakup of the United Kingdom in Scotland, as in the rest of the country, remains the province of a vocal minority. The success of Labour’s recent switch to a relentlessly anti-independence message in closing the SNP’s poll lead in recent days is evidence that independence may yet be the SNP’s Achilles ’ heel. The more closely the SNP can be wedded to a hard-line position on separatism, the narrower their electoral appeal will get. This provides the opportunity for a well-led and confident Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party to seize the initiative, and start its long march back to relevance. If a referendum must come, we should have confidence in our arguments and our country, meet the challenge head-on, and win.