The United Kingdom as we know it, is currently on life support due to the malignant nationalist movements infecting it. If the Scottish National Party wins an overall majority at May’s parliamentary elections, it might prove a final blow to the three hundred-and-fourteen-year old union between England and Scotland. What is needed to prevent this looming social, economic, and political disaster is a breath of life to be given to the intergovernmental relations of Holyrood and Westminster.
If the perception politics of the last thirty-five years is anything to go by, then surely the SNP should be far behind in the polls. The current Scottish government with all its humiliating scandals is more comparable to a third-world dictatorship than a West European democracy. The recent revelations of wrongdoing by top members of the government over their handling of the Alex Salmond inquiry demonstrates the dishonesty and disingenuity of the SNP and proves an almost Nixon-esque level of political crookedness at the top of the party. This scandal is just one in a string of many that have plagued he SNP. Last year the Scottish finance secretary Derek Mackay was found to have sent inappropriate messages to a sixteen-year-old boy which former Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw claimed could “constitute the grooming of a young individual”. Eight months later the SNP’s Margaret Ferrier MP was suspended from the party for travelling by train from London to Glasgow despite receiving a positive covid-19 test. She was subsequently arrested by police and charged with breaching coronavirus restrictions. The party has also been associated with abusive behaviour over the past month. Joanna Cherry MP was sacked from the SNP front bench in Westminster due to disagreements with the leadership, despite her being one of the brightest and most well-known members of the party. She was later in need of police protection after receiving violent threats. Finally, last month the BBC released a documentary on the life of Charles Kennedy which revealed the horrendous amount of online abuse he received during the 2015 general election, some of which was contributed by an SNP official organising Ian Blackford’s campaign to take the seat. The Sturgeon-Salmond feud is simply exposing the lies, deceit, and ruthlessness evident at the top of the party, where political opponents are crucified by all means necessary.
One of the main reasons why these scandals are having little impact on the hegemony of the SNP in Scotland is the absence of unionist heavyweight political figures. During the 2014 referendum, it was the combined forces of Gordon Brown, Charles Kennedy, George Galloway and Alistair Darling against Alex Salmond, an old-fashioned, out-dated, and out-manoeuvrable leader of the nationalist movement who lacked the ability to communicate a positive vision for a post-UK Scotland. However, now the charge is led by Nicola Sturgeon, a charismatic moderniser who faces very little well-known opposition. The vast majority of Scottish Labour grandees were wiped out in 2015, long-time Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell was sacked when Johnson came to power, former leader of the Lib Dems Jo Swinson lost her seat at the last election and popular Scottish Conservative MSP Ruth Davidson is leaving politics to look after her new-born child. There is some hope for the unionist cause though. Scottish Labour’s newly elected leader Anas Sarwar is experienced, charismatic, honest, and young, qualities that might just give him the chance to reclaim the title of leader of the opposition following May’s Holyrood elections. A feasible and credible alternative government that values devolution and wishes to strengthen it further may be the biggest threat, the SNP has seen in years.
How can the long-term nationalist fervour be confronted though? There is the classic Cameron solution which is to hold an oversimplified in/out referendum requiring a simple majority. Though despite superficially succeeding last time, the long-term consequences of the vote were dire for the Union despite a promise that it would put the question of independence to rest. In actual fact, it did the opposite. The referendum catapulted the constitutional question from a secondary issue in Scotland to the only issue in Scotland. In the general election a year later, the SNP won almost every seat in the country and Scotland has become a truly divided nation ever since with voters either being for independence or against it with no wriggle room in between. The alternative to the Cameron solution is the more sensible and certainly far more common across Europe, super-majority referendum. This vote would require a minimum of two-thirds of the electorate to support independence, ensuring that any move to separate was backed by a significant number of Scots and national division as seen post-Brexit would be minimised. However, due to the UK’s embarrassing record on referenda in the past, a super-majority referendum would be unprecedented and would likely be met with opposition by nationalists who would either boycott it or deem it unjust if only a simple majority voted ‘Yes’. Just like the previous referendum, this is unlikely to quench the thirst for independence and will probably only amplify it.
Instead of endless referenda what is needed is a serious reform of the way the Scottish government interacts with Westminster. Currently, they are entirely separate entities hurling abuse at each other from 600km away. In a speech on the twenty-year legacy of devolution in Scotland, Labour MP Ian Murray declared that the UK must look at ways to improve intergovernmental relations. These include looking at reforms to the Committee system, devolutionary powers, the institutions in Westminster and looking at the feasibility of a senate of the nations and regions. In January 2020, Gordon Brown explained his support for the creation of a senate of the nations and regions, which would provide a forum for representatives of the governments of the regions and nations of the UK to debate legislation in Westminster. This could potentially replace the House of Lords as the legislative upper-chamber and give Holyrood-Westminster relations a new cooperative breath of life. An analysis of other Western federal states such as the US or Germany shows that there is very little appetite for separatism when each region is adequately represented and feels like their voices are being heard. Thus, the federalisation of the United Kingdom seems to be the only solution to ever-rising nationalism, which is happening not only in Scotland but in England and Wales too.