Who will halt the SNP’s velvet revolution?

13 July 2022

11:40 PM

13 July 2022

11:40 PM

Where do the Conservative leadership candidates stand on the Union? Jeremy Hunt has ruled out another referendum in the next decade. Tom Tugendhat says the SNP ‘can’t keep asking the same question hoping for a different answer’. (Oh, sweet summer child.) Penny Mordaunt reckons ‘another divisive referendum’ is ‘the last thing Scotland needs’. The biggest question mark hangs over frontrunner Rishi Sunak, who once reportedly advocated English independence from Scotland on financial grounds. (Finally, a prime minister Nicola Sturgeon can do business with.)

The Union ought to be front and centre in this leadership contest. It is under threat in a way entirely unique in its three-century history. While Sturgeon repeatedly described the 2014 referendum as ‘once in a generation’ and even a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity, barely had the no vote registered than her party was agitating for a re-run. Sore losers have that prerogative, of course, but devolution means these sore losers have their own parliament, government and proto-state from which to continue their campaign.

Labour sold voters on a Scottish parliament with the promise that ‘the Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed’. The best-laid plans of mice, men and Donald Dewar gang aft agley. The arrogant architects of devolution could not conceive of the SNP ever displacing Labour and so they drew up a devolved apparatus with a strong executive, weak parliament, few checks and balances, and nothing to stop a separatist party from turning these institutions into a battering ram against the UK state.

That is exactly what Nicola Sturgeon has done. She has used her government and her office as First Minister to advance the separatist cause, as I have documented at length for Coffee House readers. International affairs is one of the more overlooked examples and yet it is illustrative of how far outwith the bounds of the devolution settlement the Scottish government operates. MPs at Westminster might think foreign policy is reserved. Think again.

The Scottish government is openly pursuing its own foreign policy, the Scottish Global Affairs Framework, which ‘sets out the values, principles and priorities underpinning the Scottish government’s work to become more active internationally’. ‘External affairs’ is a cabinet-level portfolio. There is an External Affairs Directorate — a McForeign Office — which is responsible for enhancing Scotland’s international relationships, promoting Scotland’s ambition to be a good global citizen [and] protecting our place and interests in Europe’.

The Scottish government is sidestepping the UK to form connections with foreign countries that, although done under the rubric of trade and cultural exchange, are designed to form the basis of future bilateral ties between sovereign states. The Sturgeon government’s own description of these partnerships gives the game away: it is pursuing ‘diplomatic relations’ or ‘diplomatic ties’ with China, the Arctic nations and Ireland and ‘political links’ with Germany and Canada.

On Brexit, the Scottish government openly worked to undermine the policy and standing of the UK government. While Downing Street tried to deliver the outcome of the 2016 referendum. Sturgeon, in her ministerial capacity, lobbied the German government on ‘Scotland’s perspective’ on the EU. She went to Dublin and pledged: ‘On virtually every issue of substance relating to Brexit, the Irish government… has an ally in Scotland.’ She used a speech to the French National Assembly to attack Brexit, rebuke the UK government’s negotiating strategy, talk up independence and vow that ‘the Scottish government is committed to the European Union’. She flies the European flag at Holyrood in defiance of Brexit.

The Scottish government is in the midst of a velvet revolution in foreign affairs, one of the last remaining areas where Westminster is still allowed to make decisions for Scotland. The response from Westminster has been tepid and complacent, where there has even been a response. Unsurprisingly, weakness on nationalist overreach has encouraged more of it. Now, unable to get Westminster to agree to another referendum, Sturgeon plans to hold a unilateral plebiscite and hopes the Supreme Court will green-light it. It comes wrapped in platitudes about law and democracy but it is, in fact, a direct challenge by the Scottish government and the Scottish parliament to the political authority of the UK government and the sovereignty of the UK parliament. One arm of the British state is openly attacking another.

Cue lots of ‘now is not the time’ from Tories on both sides of the Tweed. They display an extraordinary lack of urgency over a process that could, in theory, conclude with the dissolution of the very country the Conservative leadership contenders aspire to lead. I and others have been sending up warning signals about these matters for some time now. None of us, it is fair to say, has managed to shake Westminster or Whitehall out of their dangerous complacency. However, a happy warrior am I and I intend to write more in the coming days and weeks about why (and how) the next Tory leader and prime minister must prepare for a fight to save the United Kingdom.

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