Julia Rampen is the digital night editor of the Liverpool Echo. She writes regularly about finance and politics.
In polite Scottish society, if you were going to admit supporting the Scottish Tories, you would say, “I’m voting for Ruth Davidson.”
An outspoken fresh-faced lesbian with a working-class background, Ms. Davidson took over a failing party and reinvented it as the bulwark of British unionism after the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. She posed astride a tank and played bagpipes badly for a laugh, and Tories north and south of the border adored her. Her place in the British consciousness was confirmed during the 2016 European Union referendum when, while batting for Remain at a TV debate, she told a Brexiter and fellow Tory by the name of Boris Johnson that he was a liar.
But on Aug. 29, three years and what feels like a lifetime after that debate, Ms. Davidson resigned as Scottish Conservative leader. The reason she gave was part politics, part personal; she said the idea of spending “hundreds of hours” away from friends and family fighting yet another election “fills me with dread.”
Her departure, however, comes at a low point for Edinburgh-London relations. She was said to have been furious that the now-Prime Minister Johnson had sacked her long-time ally David Mundell as Scottish secretary. And since then, the PM has effectively expelled 21 Tory rebels against a Brexit no-deal from the party – a move many have interpreted as a purge of One Nation Conservatives, a term coined by the great 19th-century Tory PM Benjamin Disraeli, but one that has become a byword for liberal unionism. Indeed, after the expulsions, the former Conservative prime minister John Major – an opponent of both Brexit and Scottish independence – said: “My fear is that Brexit will unsettle the unity of our U.K.” In a referendum, “you’ve got to want to reach people who don’t share your political faith,” warns Blair McDougall, who led the campaign against independence in 2014. “Narrowing your political base makes you less able to win.”
Mr. Johnson, like Theresa May before him, pays lip service to being a unionist; he ended a miserable week with a photo-op on a farm in Aberdeenshire, in Scotland and, in July, he anointed himself with a new title: minister of the union. But the hard Brexit he is pursuing, with its mantra of “people versus Parliament,” reeks of a specifically English nationalism.
After all, Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain in the EU. The implications for the island of Ireland are vast, not least because the Good Friday Agreement was built on a framework of open borders and EU law. But Brexiters are opposed to the “Brexit backstop” negotiated by Ms. May – an insurance policy that guarantees an open Irish border, whatever form a trade deal might take, which they see as a trap. A news conference between Mr. Johnson and Irish Premier Leo Varadkar left little resolved, although when one journalist reminded Mr. Johnson of his pledge to die in a ditch rather than compromise, the PM replied: “When you talk about people being found ‘dead in ditches,’ there’s a sense in this country that you really don’t understand what’s at stake here.” Scotland, meanwhile, has a simpler relationship with England, but even still, support for independence hovers around 50 per cent; according to a poll of 1,019 Scots that was published in August, support increased after Mr. Johnson’s first trip to Edinburgh as Prime Minister.
A general election would raise the stakes further – and not in a good way for the unionists. Whether it comes at Mr. Johnson’s request or at the opposition parties’ choosing, almost everyone agrees that polling day is on its way. Most also agree the winner in Scotland will be the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP). Under Ms. Davidson, the Scottish Tories went from a joke to being the second-biggest party in Scotland; if a snap election is called, polls suggest that these gains would be wiped out overnight, with the SNP seemingly headed for a resounding victory.
The SNP opposes Brexit, and this may be welcomed by Remainers. But it places unionists in a bind. While Labour north of the border has been scrambling to out-union Ms. Davidson, the London-based U.K. Labour leadership shows every sign of thinking differently. John McDonnell, the shadow Chancellor, said in August that his party should not try to block a second vote on independence – which, in party negotiating terms, amounts to turning up at the SNP’s door with a colossal bouquet of roses. (He has since tried to distance himself from the comments, but did not rule out working together.) Left-wing unionists have become an awkward third wheel. “The issue is where staunch anti-independent folk go, with Labour doing its very best to repel them,” says Duncan Hothersall, a Labour Party activist.
And this – rather than the latest machinations in Westminster – is the heart of the matter. If there is one certainty in British politics, it is that any successful campaign relies on thousands of volunteers knocking on (often hostile) strangers’ doors and trying to talk them around. In 2014, the unionists were savaged in the street, but they won. Now the vision they talked about is receding, and there is little to replace it.
“Like Albert Camus, I love my country too much to be a nationalist,” Ms. Davidson said in her 2017 George Orwell lecture on the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism, she argued, was being “proudly Scottish, Welsh, Bajan or Pakistani, at the same time as enjoying our Britishness.” Nationalism, on the other hand, was “about power, and its obsessive pursuit, and the dichotomization of a population into the authentic and the inauthentic.”
Her subject was Scotland, but she might as easily have been talking about the English nationalists in the Tory party. Boris Johnson may win an early election. The price could be the breakup of the U.K.
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