Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters and a former Head of Communications for the Scottish Conservatives
Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. There could scarcely be a better definition of unionist strategy in Scotland- specifically the Conservative variety.
I take no pleasure in saying this. In fact, I am growing weary of the issue, primarily because it becomes more and more obvious that those curating the strategy and message over the last ten-or-so years appear to be psychologically unwilling to admit that they have got anything wrong.
Unionism throughout devolution has been depressingly reactive. When the SNP won its first election, in 2007, the unionists wet the bed and created the Calman Commission, leading to a modest increase in Holyrood’s devolved powers. Then, in the few days before the 2014 referendum, when it became clear that the nationalist may win, ‘The Vow’ was created – leading to the Smith Commission and another (slightly less modest) expansion in the devolved powers.
The Vow was intensely frustrating for me. In late 2012, in Downing Street, when No was polling at 65 per cent, I was asked for my view on how the referendum would play out. I told my questioner that if they fought the referendum on ‘No means status quo’, they would either lose or win narrowly, but if they created a vision of a ‘New Union’ they would get 65-70 per cent.
I was looked at as though I had three heads. I was told everything would be fine. I was told they knew exactly what they were doing. I’ve become very used to that.
The overwhelming likelihood, in my view, is that if they had listened to the right advice in the past, not just from me, indyref 2 would be no more than a nationalist pipe dream fantasised about in dark corners of Twitter.
However, we are where we are. And now, the choices have polarised. In shorthand, we might call these poles ‘abolition’ and ‘new union’. The abolitionist strategy is well represented by Henry Hill, of this parish.
The strategy is effectively this: devolution was a mistake and if we reverse it people will soon understand that. Close the devolved parliaments and assemblies, return power to London, fix the nations’ poorly-performing public services and let the nationalists destroy themselves by fighting about how to respond.
It is not dissimilar to the strategy I hear from my friends in the Scottish Conservative party about their own route to power. They tell me that if Nicola Sturgeon resigns over the Alex Salmond situation, and then if the SNP can’t find a leader to unite them, and then if the party splits, and then if people realise our schools are in peril, and then if Brexit settles down and Scots start to think it was a good idea, and then if Boris Johnson resigns and is replaced by Keir Starmer or a more palatable Tory, the Conservatives might win the election in 2026.
I suppose it’s like sitting in the boardroom of Brechin City FC and listening to its directors map out a course to winning the Champions League. In the echo chamber, it is very easy to become intoxicated by the emotion and validation which surrounds you. You start to believe that the impossible is possible; that outcomes which those outside the bubble can see to be fanciful and ridiculous are in fact achievable.
It is a long, long time since I have been in the bubble, and I must say life is much clearer on the outside. For me, the central problem with the unionist strategy is that, to continue the footballing analogies, they are playing the man rather than the ball.
The Tories are so psychologically obsessed with “getting one over on the Nats”, as they like to say, that they allow their emotion to completely override any ability they have to clinically analyse and diagnose a problem, before creating a solution to it.
The problem is not that the SNP is doing well. That is the symptom. The problem is that the UK is increasingly unattractive to Scots.
And the solution to that is the other pole – the ‘New Union’. You see, without creating a vision of what the UK will look like for the next hundred years, those who claim to be the guardians of the Union Flag are in fact the same people putting it most at risk.
The way to defeat the SNP and nationalism is to ignore them. Ignore them! Instead, put all your energies into creating a UK that you know, if you leave your emotion at the door and apply some clinical logic, can stand the test of time. You can create a Union which is both heavily devolved and has a muscular centre. There are plenty of examples, Canada being a good place to start.
The Conservatives are so petrified of indyref 2 that they appear to have put absolutely no thought into how they might actually win it. It’s regrettable, because a Yes outcome is very far from inevitable.
The Union has a lot going for it. The Scotland Office – which is, by the way, significantly smarter under its current management than it has been in the past – is currently giving wavering voters something to think about.
It is using the city region growth deal programme to greater effect by, frankly, taking much more credit than it has done before. Its Union Connectivity Review is extremely unpopular in St Andrews House for good reason – people don’t care who buys them their roads and railways, they simply want their roads and railways.
And, most obviously, it is impossible to deny that if Scotland were an independent country in the EU, right now, then hundreds of thousands of the Scots who currently have a Covid vaccine in their body would be watching, unvaccinated, as its foreign neighbour to the south led the world.
There is plenty more of this material. Plenty of opportunities to play the ball and not the man.
And let us be clear: this stubborn negativity is increasingly, again, a Tory problem rather than a wholesale unionist one. Keir Starmer has made clear that he sees a federalist future for the UK. And, after the chest-beating of the Holyrood election is out of the way, and if the SNP wins a majority, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Lib Dems will both respect the democratic outcome and concede the case for indyref 2.
That will leave the Tories in a familiar place. Those of us who were around in the 1990s will know it well. Alone. Cold. Fighting old battles while the people have moved on. Looking stale. Looking unreflective. Looking English.
There is a better way. Take the referendum. Offer the ‘new union’ as an option on the ballot paper. Win. And then we’ll never have to talk about this again.
Friends, I know you don’t like it. But if you want the UK to stay together, you’re going to have to do it. Because the current ‘no, no, no’ strategy is voluntarily placing the United Kingdom on death row because its guardians are too afraid of the verdict in the trial.