There must be something about Easter that prompts politicians to make pious statements about unity.
Yesterday the Prime Minister used her Easter message to speak of “a sense that people are coming together and uniting behind the opportunities that lie ahead”. This prompted the obvious questions: which people and what opportunities?
Warming to her theme, Theresa May also referred to the UK as “one great union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future”. Perhaps she believes that if she says that often enough it’ll become true.
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In a speech boldly entitled “The importance of truth in political debate”, the First Minister indulged in a homily of her own earlier in the week. Alluding to “talk” of how a second independence referendum would be “divisive”, Nicola Sturgeon claimed there was “nothing inevitable” about that. “Campaigns and politics are only divisive if we make them so,” she told the Political Studies Association, “and we should be determined – all of us – not to make it so.”
Ms Sturgeon then spoke of welcoming rather than dismissing expert opinion, which was interesting given her party’s routine denigration of unhelpful interventions – i.e. the Institute for Fiscal Studies and various academic economists – over the past six years. The First Minister also said she had a responsibility to “lead by example”, which presumably means she’ll stop accusing her opponents of “talking Scotland down”.
The point is there’s considerable bunkum on both sides of the constitutional divide. Division has always been a feature of politics – how could it be any other way? – but since the dawning of what might be called the referendum era in 2011 (when the UK was asked to vote Yes or No on electoral reform), that division has become even more marked.
And two binary referendums, the (first) independence referendum of 2014 and the European referendum of 2016, hardened the arteries further. Obviously, it suits both the Prime and First Ministers to pretend that the UK and Scotland, respectively, aren’t divided as a consequence, but anyone observing events with a dispassionate eye – which admittedly is hardly anyone these days – can see that they are.
Yesterday Turkey went to the polls in a referendum of its own, with voters being asked to approve or reject sweeping reforms that will replace the country’s parliamentary system with an executive presidency. A “Yes” vote, which polls suggest is the likely outcome, could see President Erdogan remain in office until 2029. And Turkey, of course, will end up even more divided as a result.
It’s tempting to argue for a global referendum on not having any more referendums. Even regular elections aren’t immune, for next weekend France votes in the first round of a presidential election being fought between nationalists and internationalists, between patriotism and globalisation. Such is the divisive dynamic of the modern political era.
And the trouble here in Scotland is that every ballot has become a proxy referendum on independence. Take the forthcoming elections for Scotland’s 32 local authorities. Usually this passes most voters by and attracts little more than dutiful press coverage, but this one is different – I can’t remember a local government election so vociferous in the past 20 years.
In yet another example of the existential nationalism that now dominates SNP thinking, Edinburgh councillor Frank Ross made the extraordinary assertion that “Scottish” Unionist parties didn’t actually exist and that their leaders were merely pretending to be Scottish in order to win votes. Scottish Conservatives, meanwhile, have dispensed with local issues altogether and cast 4 May as a means of “sending a message” to Nicola Sturgeon that the majority of Scots don’t want another referendum.
Senior Tory MSP Murdo Fraser has even urged voters to “back anyone but the SNP” to take advantage of the Single Transferable Vote system. And in a further outbreak of unity, SNP MSP Shirley-Anne Somerville said the Tories were “fast becoming Scotland’s Ukip”.
Over the past week, meanwhile, the battle has raged over another non-local issue, the so-called “rape clause” in UK Government proposals for welfare reform. Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale called it “barbaric”, while Nationalists have concentrated their fire on Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson for saying she believed it would be handled “sensitively” by a Whitehall department hardly renowned for its empathy.
Several commentators have also convinced themselves that the row has been “hugely damaging” to the Scottish Conservative campaign for the local government elections, to the extent that the (modest) Scottish Tory revival will be “halted”. No doubt anti-poll tax campaigners believed the same thing to be true of local government finance a few decades ago, but at the 1990 regional council elections (remember those?) the Tory vote actually went up.
Here’s a bold prediction: on 4 May, it will do so again, for the division in Scottish politics hinges much more upon the constitution than domestic policy or welfare reform. Tory campaigners tell me that the rape clause is hardly mentioned on the doorstep and then only by those who’d never dream of voting Conservative in the first place. And what of Unionist attitudes to the First Minister and the prospect of another independence referendum? “Vitriolic,” replied my source. “They refer to ‘that bloody woman’, and a lot worse.”
Now the rape clause is undoubtedly a nasty piece of policy-making, but the idea that it’ll have a demonstrable impact on voting intentions early next month illustrates the ever-expanding gap between campaigning rhetoric and electoral reality. And as I’ve observed before, while they constantly rail against the “division” caused by constitutional politics, the Scottish Conservatives are quite cynically – but it has to be said effectively – exploiting that division for their own electoral gain.
Nor will that corrosive dynamic change anytime soon. There might be a period of respite after May, but within a few years voters in Scotland will have to endure Westminster and Holyrood elections – and most likely a second independence referendum – all of which will be dominated by the constitution. And at this point in 2020 and 2021 there will be further disingenuous Easter homilies about Scots (or Brits) holding hands and coming together.
In 2019, of course, there will be one less election, with the UK no longer sending representatives to the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg. One should almost be thankful for small electoral mercies.