Amongst the many changes wrought by the pandemic, one which people might not have predicted has been the way it has brought the constitutional conflict back up to the boil.
For several years after the Brexit referendum the question of Scottish independence remained relatively quiescent, even as the SNP fought tooth and nail to prevent the UK’s exit from the European Union because of how difficult it made their ultimate ambition.
But the breakdown of the ‘four nations’ consensus on Covid-19 has changed all that. Less than a year out from crucial Holyrood elections, the Scottish Government continues to enjoy the ‘rally round the flag’ effect that Boris Johnson has lost (despite a growing laundry list of woes). Both Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, her Welsh counterpart, are talking seriously about introducing internal movement restrictions inside the UK.
After decades of complacency and a blithe assumption that conceding more powers to Holyrood and Cardiff Bay could buy them off indefinitely, the Government has at least started to wake up to the scale of the challenge. The UK Internal Market Bill was a welcome sign that ministers were prepared to defend the legitimate role of Westminster in national life.
But there will be much more to do over the next few years – and the new Conservative Union Research Group aims to make sure the Party is equipped to do it.
CURG is the brainchild of Robin Millar, the newly-elected MP for Aberconwy in North Wales. A committed unionist – he set out his thinking on the Union in a recent piece for the Daily Express – he was spurred to organise after realising how badly devolution had affected government attitudes towards constituencies such as his. When raising questions about flooding, for example, a response from DEFRA was simply forwarded from the Welsh Government, and at one point the Secretary of State expressed sympathy only for English constituencies affected.
Millar says he isn’t an instinctive centraliser. He’s a fan of subsidiarity and pushed for greater local power whilst a county councillor in Suffolk. But whilst he might be sceptical about Westminster’s capacity to directly run North Wales, he believes that it has not lost its ultimate responsibility towards all British citizens – but, after decades of ‘devolve and forget’, that it sometimes forgets that.
After speaking to other Welsh colleagues, Millar reached out to MPs from other parts of the country including David Bowie, the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. The goal was to set up a “simple, focused, and open” group to help backbench Tory MPs (although there were ministers who wished to join) work more effectively in Parliament on Union issues.
Membership has reportedly grown “organically” since the launch, and as of today, the URG apparently counts more than 70 of them amongst its membership. Crucially, four fifths of these represent English constituencies.
Whilst the name obviously invites comparisons with the European Research Group, Millar is clear that the URG is not a “disgruntled caucus”. The Government’s stated goal is to defend the Union, and the URG intends to help.
The Committee: Selaine Saxby, Fay Jones, Robin Millar, Andrew Bowie, and James Davies.
One way of doing this is simply making sure that MPs know more about the Union. Many MPs don’t come into politics to talk about the constitution, and Millar ended up setting himself a lot of reading up over lockdown to make sure he was across the issues. That’s perhaps one reason why the URG is geared towards mobilising people with shared convictions, rather than advocating for a specific and detailed set of solutions.
In Parliament, the group will hopefully help pro-UK MPs to make better-informed and more coordinated interventions on relevant issues by preparing briefing notes and other support. The UK Internal Market Bill is an obvious example, but the URG leadership are keen to highlight that there is a Union dimension to a huge range of issues. Ministers aiming to raise the Government’s profile in devolved policy areas won’t disagree.
Over the longer term, Millar hopes the group will be able to hone the intellectual arguments unionists need to take on the separatists. This involves tackling misleading comparisons between the British and European unions, challenging misleading attacks on the ‘English Government’, defending Westminster’s role in overseeing legitimately UK-wide initiatives such as the Shared Prosperity Fund, and combating the idea that support for the Union is nostalgic or reactionary.
It also means pressing the SNP on the inconsistencies in their vision, including the increasingly salient question of whether territories such as Orkney and Shetland should have the right to go their own way in the event of an independence vote: “Where does separation stop?”
They might also try to persuade ministers to broaden and deepen their arguments against granting Sturgeon a re-run referendum after next year’s Holyrood election. Simply repeating the “once in a generation” mantra won’t be enough, but better arguments are available.
It is too soon to say what sort of ideas might come out of this process. But even if it just gets minds concentrated on the problem and people talking about the Union, the URG would be doing the Party and the country a service. For too long, nationalism has enjoyed the advantage of having permanently-established parties and caucuses focused exclusively on attacking the United Kingdom. It is past time that unionism counter-organised.