At the end of last month, as the Scottish Parliament was dissolving ahead of the Holyrood election, ministers in Boris Johnson’s government made two announcements related to Scotland and the future integrity of the UK. The first was symbolic: from now on, government buildings across the country (although not in Northern Ireland) would be required to fly the Union flag every day as a “proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us,” the Conservative culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said. The second was procedural: in the coming weeks, lawyers for the Johnson administration planned to challenge the SNP’s attempt to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law.
These announcements were followed by the publication of the Dunlop Review – a report, written by the Tory Lord James Dunlop, looking at strategies for “strengthening” the Union. Johnson should establish a new cabinet position for intergovernmental and constitutional affairs, Dunlop recommended, and there should be “better branding” for Scottish infrastructure projects financed by the UK Treasury. Since taking charge of the Tory Party in 2019, Johnson has launched four separate initiatives aimed at ‘saving’ the Union from the threat of Scottish nationalism. His latest maneuver stalled earlier this year when the head of Downing Street’s ‘Union Unit’, the ex-Vote Leave strategist Oliver ‘Sonic’ Lewis, quit after reportedly briefing against his colleague, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. Lewis had been in post for a grand total of 14 days.
No party is more adept at exploiting the gap between practice and rhetoric in Scottish society than Labour, and no Scottish politician is more authentically Labour than Gordon Brown.
After a series of relatively underwhelming, policy-focused speeches, the former prime minister has landed back in the independence debate with a thud.
Alex Salmond’s belief that independence will be achieved on the back of a “rising tide of expectations” is drawn from recent Scottish political history. It’s no coincidence that support for the SNP boomed in the 1970s following the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea and then slumped in the ‘80s as the UK economy entered a severe downturn.
The near doubling of Scottish rates of poverty and unemployment during the Thatcher era sapped Scotland’s economic confidence, reinforcing the defensive and conservative instincts of the Scottish electorate. No doubt last week’s news that British economic output has begun to recover after the worst recession in living memory was greeted with the same sense of relief in Bute House as it was at the Treasury.
The explosion of loyalist anger sparked by the decision to remove the Union Jack from the top of Belfast City Hall a few weeks ago – and the street protests, riots and police clashes that followed – has served as an abrupt reminder of how deeply unsettled the political situation in Northern Ireland remains.
Despite the power-sharing deal struck by Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in 2007, politics in the province has grown more, not less, polarised as support for the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and its unionist equivalent, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), has steadily waned.