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Politics. Scotland Bill.SNP. Alex Salmond. Indepednence. Holyrood. Scottish election landslide.

Whatever happened to Unionism?

 Stands Scotland where it did?  Damned if I know.  But it is no longer a country afraid to know itself.  Somehow, the air seems different.  Most Scots I’ve come across in the last seven hectic day,  from the right of the political spectrum as well as the left and all points in between,  seem really rather pleased by last week’s landslide vote for the Scottish National Party.   Or maybe I just haven’t bumped into all those committed unionists who represent majority opinion in Scotland according to the polls.  They seem to be laying pretty low. 

   Yesterday, David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions called on drowsing unionists to get off their backsides and “make an optimistic and uplifting case” for Scotland to stay in the Union. It’s not enough, he said, just to frighten Scots by telling them that “small countries can’t make it on their own”.  Well, he’s got that bit right anyway, even if you could hardly hear the PM for the noise of stable doors banging shut.  It seemed a bit late to be making the case for the Union at the very moment when, in Holyrood, Alex Salmond was leading his 69 MSPs in swearing – somewhat reluctantly – their oath of allegiance to the Crown
    Unionism has been caught off guard, we’re told,  and needs to get its act together.  Call in John Reid, Douglas Alexander and Gordon Brown (ok maybe not him) and have them get together in  a big, bold British is Best campaign fronted by David Steel and Charles Kennedy with Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Forsyth bringing up the rear…  But just reading the names tells you that any such a referendum campaign is doomed.   These are all men of the past – heavyweights from a different era.   They aren’t like the wiry young women and men who were taking their seats in Holyrood yesterday and  already sorting out the mechanics of independence. Power has shifted in the last seven days, and the UK already feels a different place. 

       It’s as if politicians, business people,  commentators have lost the knack of arguing the case for Great Britain.  As Cameron says – too often the unionists have tried to bury nationalism with negatives.  Scotland can’t go it alone because it is too wee.  Needs English subsidies. Is too immature to govern itself.  Anyway, who wants to live in a tartan theme park run by the SNP?   Metropolitan commentators and politicians can’t get their heads round Scottish independence because they can’t understand why the Scots would want it.  Why go to all the trouble, and expense, of separation from the UK when the Scots are already on to a cushy number thanks to the Barnett Formula?  Don’t these Scots know what side their bread is buttered on?  Do they really want to be like Iceland, living on puffins? 

   But the problem with telling people that they can’t stand on their own two feet is that eventually they will try to prove you wrong.  It’s an inconvenient truth about nations and communities that they want to do their own thing, just like teenagers.  People have this need to demonstrate, to themselves as much as anyone else,  their capacity for self-determination, for freedom if you like, irrespective of economic considerations.   When Norway split from Sweden in 1905, it wasn’t because the Norwegians smelt oil and thought they could make a killing.   It was because the more sophisticated Swedes said that the rustic Norwegians smelled of fish.    When Montenegro voted for independence in 2006 it wasn’t because they thought they could get a better deal from the EU but because they were fed up feeling looked upon as a boil on the backside of Serbia. The velvet divorce  between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in June 1992 happened, not because the two countries thought they could boost their GDP – though that did happen – but because they couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of remaining in one country any more.   Divorce simply seemed the most sensible option, given the endless wrangling and bickering about who was subsidising who.  

   Are we at that point now in Britain?  Will the Union disintegrate, ultimately because no one can really be bothered arguing or fighting to retain it?   Unless the unionists find some more compelling case I suspect it will.  I think we may have turned a corner now in Scotland.  The institutional infrastructure is already being laid for an independent Scotland.   Look around: the health service and education, especially higher education, are now radically different from the services south of the border.  It would not be particularly disruptive to separate them.  The Scotland Bill is already dismantling the fiscal UK, giving the Scottish parliament borrowing powers and greater tax raising powers, with the implicit division of HM Revenue.  Independence would involve a lot less disruption than might have been the case in the past. There’s no need to set up a parliament for a start. Last week’s vote was a massive affirmation of the democratic legitimacy of Holyrood. 

  Of course, there would be disruption, a lot of it, if Britain left the UK.    Scottish MPs would withdraw from Westminster en masse – to the cheers of Tory MPs.  There would be a division of the National Debt, and arguments about the family silver.  The two big issues would be oil and Trident, but with goodwill they could be sorted. International law is pretty clear on who owns what under the sea, and if England still wants nuclear weapons, then they could go to Devonport or some other naval base.  Scotland would take up a seat in the UN, and apply for separate membership of the EU, which some constitutionalists claim would be messy – but since both organisations uphold the principle of  national self-determination, there;s no reason to believe that either would reject an independent Scotland

    I find it slightly strange even to be talking like this, as if independence were just a matter of time. But after last week, we all have to take independence seriously.  The SNP’s game plan is to move Scotland so far down the road of self-government that, when they finally put the referendum question, voters will discover that Scotland already is more or less independent.  Alex Salmond wants to put Scots in the position where remaining in the Union becomes more hassle than leaving it.  Unionists have four years or so to prove him wrong. 

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


22 thoughts on “Whatever happened to Unionism?

  1. I do hope that you are right Ian. I do hope that it all comes to pass just like you said.

    Posted by Neelix | May 12, 2011, 7:00 pm
  2. Note that the Unionist newspapers in Scotland (most of them) have experienced drastic falls in sales. The Scotsman and Herald now have their lowest sales figures in years. I wonder why?

    Posted by S.Beaton | May 14, 2011, 10:16 am
  3. Iain, I would have gone along with you until I read a piece by Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review last week. I don't know about "drowsing Unioinists" but certainly there were many drowsing Scots on the day of the election. The turnout is the key and we can't ignore how low it was. The SNP made incredible progress, no doubt about it, but Roy produces figures, based on the total vote for Labour which do suggest that its vote, nationally, didn't collapse but the Lib-Dem vote did. In many former Labour constituencies the turnout was shocking. In the 30s and low 40s.Traditionally angry Labour voters don't vote for another Party, they just stay home. While it would be nice to think the SNP have smashed through it is also wise to recognise the numbers who did indeed stay home last week. It would be good to know how they would have voted had they got themselves to a polling station. http://www.scottishreview.net/KRoy120.shtml?utm_source=Sign-Up.to&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=237484-The+election+result+was+not+all+it+has+since+been+paintedI gather since publishing the piece Kenneth Roy has been accused, among other things, of being a traitor. I think that's harsh. Perhaps he is being sensible in attempting to demonstrate that while the SNP have achieved a great deal in Scotland they should not be complacent. I think that's good advice especially after absorbing the figures he presented in support of his argument.

    Posted by Jo G | May 14, 2011, 11:11 am
  4. Kenneth Roy's analysis is a perfectly rational response to the Nationalist euphoria of the last couple of weeks, and I think it's perfectly fair comment. However, euphoria is, of itself, a persuasive force – wouldn't YOU rather have something to be happy about? And Michael Portillo's comment, when interviewed by Crusty Wark (as a friend put it, "She looked like she was eating wasps!"), that it didn't matter what previous polls said, you had to proceed now on the assumption it was 50%/50% on the Independence issue, was perfectly correct. Iain's view that it's a lot easier to persuade people on the issue when the infrastructure is already half-way there is also valid. I don't see Eck putting a yes/no referendum to Scotland until/unless he's CERTAIN of winning it. If he's not, then a fall-back to Yes / Devo Max / No would be on the cards. Assuming tangible benefits from the slighly enhanced Devo we look like getting have filtered through (and I'm laying bets John Swinney will do his very able damndest to make sure of THAT!), then there will really only be a choice between Devo Max and Independence. By the same argument, if Devo Max is chosen, any future campaign will be able to say "Look, the baby's healthy, we're only cutting the umbilical cord!" Sooner, or later, the Union will be consigned to history. I suspect Cameron must already be thinking of ways to sell that to the dinosaur mandarins of his party. After all, it does contain the strong possibility of very long-term Tory hegemony in a detached England. The matter of dispirited Labour voters staying home will, I believe, be settled by time (my impression here in Glasgow is that they're not getting any younger), and by the persuasive force of a positive SNP and their own party tearing itself to bits. After all, if the main policy issue dividing the two Social Democrat parties is Independence, fear of that diminishes considerably, and the anti-Independence party has within its ranks 22% (according to a recent poll) and rising of Independence supporters, then it becomes increasingly hard to justify the existence of the Labour Party in Scotland. The primary refuge for Socail Democrats then becomes the increasingly positive (and why not?) SNP. With something positive to vote for, people turn out – I don't know a single person with SNP inclinations who didn't vote. Working in Springburn, I'm aware of a lot of Labour people (36% turnout) who couldn't find anything worth voting for in their own party. Speaking personally, I have felt much happier about almost every aspect of my daily life since the election. Some of that's illogical, I know, but bugger logic! I've had enough of the dreary, dreich world the Unionists have forged. Long live euphoria!

    Posted by Bob Leslie | May 14, 2011, 1:25 pm
  5. The only thing Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander, et al can teach the labour fold, north of the border, is 'How to fiddle there expenses'.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 14, 2011, 2:58 pm
  6. I was so relieved when I heard that the SNP had won then I heard that they had a majority and I couldnt believe it in fact I still have to pinch myself when I hear the phrase "There will be an Independence referendumn " and if Scots dont go the whole way then we will have Devo max which is fine as a stepping stone ,as the EU takes on more of the form as a country there will be less for Westminster to do so Scots will ask what is the point of continuing to send MPs to Westminster ,when we have the European parliament and the Scots parliament.Scotland will become independent but not the 19th century independence but a 21st century interdependence.

    Posted by Conway | May 14, 2011, 3:34 pm
  7. "Whatever happened to Unionism?" 'It was consigned to the history books on the 5th May 2011' – is the short answerBut ,of course, the processof dis-engagement had been going on for a considerable period before the 5th of May, and long before the devolved government was created in 1999. But, perhaps you didn't notice Mr Macwhirter?All that is left to do is to tidy up the loose ends. And with goodwill and mutual respect on both sides of the border the parting of the ways should be amicably carried forward to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.Tristram Hunt, a low level English aristrocrat turned politician, who now represents English Labour in a Stoke constituency, said in an article, in the Guardian, dated 23/7/2008 : '..that the conditions which forged Scotland and England into Great Britain during the 19th century have all but disappeared.. [and that] most of the nation-building blocks [that defined Britishness] have disintegrated..'He goes on to say in the article; "[David Cameron] has described himself as a very "convinced unionist" far happier to settle for an imperfect union than none at all." I fear, Mr Macwhirter, your forlorn hope that unionism will somehow reinvigorate itself between now and the next Holyrood elections is indeed a forlorn one.According to Hunt, the response to this pro-unionist sentiment, by the rank and file of the party, on the Conservative Home website was savage: 'Becoming an English Nation State is our way forward, and unionists like David Cameron are becoming a dying breed… thank goodness!' being among the more polite posts.And Paul Kingsworth, in his article, 'Austerity is for the English' (Guardian dated 22/4/2011 asks: "Who speaks for England ?" and goes on to suggest that"We English could call for home rule – for the return of the English parliament, lost like that of the Scots to the Act of Union (1707).As you can see, it is now, not simply what us Scots want, but what the growing numbers of our English friends now want, for their country.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 14, 2011, 9:26 pm
  8. Surely, Mr MacWhirter, there is an article to be written in support of the Union that doesn't give gratuitous offence to the Scots.Until today (Sunday,15th of May, 2011) I had thought that you would have been the person to write it.However, your article in today's Sunday Herald says nothing positive about the Union, but focuses instead on perceived gaps in SNP policy. With respect, this ground has already been well trodden by the metropolitan-orientated columnists in the Guardian and Alan Cochrane in the Telegraph. The answers have been provided by a host of highly articulate commentators who have backed their comments with references to source documents available in the public domain.Your comments on Nicola Sturgeon's Newsnight encounter with Jeremy Paxman intrigue me. What I witnessed was Paxo asking a question and then trying to throw Ms Sturgeon off track using his hackneyed (and only) tactic of interrupting the answer with another question. Ms Sturgeon retained her sang froid and Paxo was reduced to huffing and puffing in the background, a one trick pony well past his best.Scotland is not short of the kind of expertise and imagination required to draw up detailed proposals covering defence, foreign policy, banking and all the other aspects of a modern independent country. As others have stated, our paradigms will be the scandinavian countries, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.The time has come for a new, informed, dialogue on the future of Scotland. As a Scot, I would prefer this to take place in the quality Scottish press.John Jamieson, Glasgow

    Posted by Anonymous | May 15, 2011, 2:29 pm
  9. Well said John Jamison, paradigm shift needed very badly, quite frankly the american model espoused by the fraudulents and criminals down south has failed spectacularly. Time to build a better world!

    Posted by alisdair | May 15, 2011, 3:07 pm
  10. Paxo…a one trick pony well past his best.Iain – take note.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 16, 2011, 11:30 am
  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

    Posted by commentor | May 16, 2011, 1:38 pm
  12. I've had it with numpty commenters who will not brook anything less than pure adulation for the SNP, 100% certainty of their infallibility, and absolute conviction of the inevitability of independence. Assorted portentious balloons – take note.

    Posted by commentor | May 16, 2011, 1:38 pm
  13. "We must start shaping a progressive English nationalism that we can be proud of – as the Scots did in the 1970s".So says Madeleine Bunting in her article printed in yesterdays Guardian.I think you might find the article interesting Iain.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 16, 2011, 11:35 pm
  14. That's an interesting comment but when reading various blogs I'm always puzzled at the hostility of some (not all) English people towards Scots who will say things like, "Good riddance." or "The sooner the better." about the quest for Scottish independence. They're also keen to point out that we are scroungers, that we don't pay our way. It always leads me to wonder why, if they are so desperate to be rid of us, they don't take the initiative and go for English independence themselves instead of leaving all the work to the Scots. Maybe, deep down, they know what Scotland contributes. Another wee clue about that was Cameron's declaration that he will fight to keep Scotland in the Union "with every fibre….." and so on.

    Posted by Jo G | May 18, 2011, 9:33 pm
  15. Unionism is really just Brit nationalism.It's nothing to do with a union and everything to do with a British national parliament having (quite naturally in fact) a Westminster direction and a Westminster view of everything.Scotland is not in a union, Scotland is a territorial acquisition that the Brit nats use to whatever ends they wish.

    Posted by natha | May 19, 2011, 5:38 pm
  16. "Power has shifted in the last seven days, and the UK already feels a different place." (Iain Macwhirter)The poet Hugh MacDiarmid, whose passing, in 1978, should have been marked, according to fellow poet Norman MacCaig, by "a two-minute pandemonium", saw that Scotland needed "a great upswelling of the incalculable", a flinging away of spectacles and discarding of safety belts. I venture to suggest that it has arrived.

    Posted by Frankly | May 20, 2011, 8:09 pm
  17. Robert Burns was moved to comment: 'Sic a parcel of rogues in a Nation.'He was refering, as we all now know, to the Scots lairds and lords who were 'persuaded' to avail themselves of the cash inducement that was there for the taking, on condition they sign up to the proposal laid before them in 1707 **.And it has been the same combination of westminster patronage and the prospect of a lucrative and extended retirement in 'That other place' at westminster which has undermined the integrity of our Scottish Parliament since it was re-convened in 1999.But now with the 'Unionist fifth column' effectively purged, and those remaining in dis-array and leaderless, a new politics has emerged. Hinted at recently, by Henry Mcleish, a previous First Minister and labour leader, when he suggested that now is the time for the labour party in Scotland to wrap itself in the Saltire.Where Tavish Scott, Annabelle Goldie and Iain Gray go from here is partly in the gift of PM Cameron at Westminster.However should they chose to stay in Scottish politics the honourable thing to do would be for them to resign their Holyrood seats and seek a fresh mandate from their Scottish constituents.** A slush fund worth millions upon millions in today's money was set up to 'persuade' the honourable, and the less honourable to betray a proud nation and accept the terms of the proposed parliamentary union between Scotland and England.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 21, 2011, 2:46 pm
  18. We know what we stand to lose from the public service cuts: affordable university education; a health service that operates in the interests of patients rather than accountants; publicly owned forests; state support for the arts, cultural bodies and voluntary services; libraries and swimming pools. But who is "we"? The answer, in all the cases named above, is the English. Austerity will affect the whole of the UK, but most of its blows are landing on England. In Scotland, if you go to your GP – who will not be commissioning services under the Lansley plan because it does not apply in Scotland – and he gives you a prescription, it does not cost you the £7.40 it costs you in England; it is free. Scotland's forests are not for sale, because Westminster has not the power to sell them. Scotland's libraries, schools, and sports centres cannot be closed by the Westminster coalition either. If a Scottish student goes to university in Edinburgh, it's free, and the state pays for the courses. English students pay through the nose!When the Scots reclaimed their nationhood from Westminster, they asserted the sovereignty of their citizens. The English case {for home rule] is the same. Who owns the English NHS, the English forests, the English labraries? Not David Cameron. Not the British State: the English people.Extract from 'Austerity is for the English' by Paul Kingsworth — published in the Guardian 22/4/2011. The 'state of the union' from an English perspective.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 22, 2011, 10:47 pm
  19. Perhaps, then, the English people should get off their backsides and do something about it.

    Posted by Jo G | May 23, 2011, 7:44 pm
  20. The defenders of the Union are a sorry lot. The Lib-dems have a deck chair instead of a front bench, Annabelle has fallen upon her sword (knitting needles?) and Labour have a terminal version of Post-traumatic-election-sydrome.AND would David Cameron help Scotland in exchange for losing 59 Westminister labour MPs ?…oh this is fun !

    Posted by getjimhere | May 30, 2011, 2:39 pm

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