WHEN even the sensible ones lose their ability to think sensibly, you know you’re in trouble. This is my sentiment, often, when I think about Scotland’s unionists. It’s a Tory affliction in particular, but also regularly hampers some in Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

It is not an exaggeration to say that I could count on one hand the number of elected unionists in Scotland who are thinking strategically about how to secure a bright future for a UK with Scotland in it. By “strategically”, I do not mean persistently denying a second independence referendum and hoping that as a result the SNP tears itself apart. That is not a strategy; that is a short-term tactic based on blind hope and crossed fingers.

This is the third and final column in a mini-series I have written on this page about Scotland’s constitutional debate. Last time, I offered my thoughts on how the Yes campaign could encourage those floating voters who voted No last time, largely based on the perceived dim economic prospects of an independent Scotland, to tick the other box in future.

Today, my attention is on how the unionists can cement Scotland’s place in the UK and effectively kill nationalism for the rest of our lives.

I should make clear, at the outset, that there is a mandate for a second independence referendum. An incredibly obvious, cast-iron mandate which any independent observer from outside our troubled land would recognise.

Unlike in the 2016 elections to the Scottish Parliament, the SNP was elected last year on a manifesto with a very clear pledge to hold another referendum, and on the back of a campaign which featured this as its biggest (some might say only) debate. In the context of a proportionally represented parliament, the SNP won a massive landslide victory, and Holyrood (and the Government, for that matter) has a very clear majority for parties which unambiguously campaigned for indyref2.

Democracy matters. We should know that by now. The cornerstone of democracy is that the people must get what they vote for. Every time. As I say to whining unionists on a regular basis, if you don’t want a debate about another referendum, then get people to vote for you rather than the SNP.

Nonetheless, leading unionists (primarily, but not limited to, Tories) are now so far removed from the ability to think rationally about constitutional affairs that, genuinely, I doubt they are emotionally able to reset themselves.

So, what would the output this rational thought process look like? Well, it would start with a long-term aim, which would be to remove the element of doubt from Scotland’s position in the UK. Unionists would attempt to emulate the development of debates such as Quebec’s place in Canada, or Norway’s position in relation to membership of the European Union.

There will always be people in Scotland who favour independence, just as there will always be Quebec sovereigntists and pro-EU Norwegians. However, the impotence of the latter two movements is stark, and represents a target for Scotland’s unionists.

The obvious next question in the flowchart is, how do we get there? It is challenging – to be charitable – to take seriously any assertion that we can get to the point where Scotland’s settled will is as clear as Quebec’s or Norway’s, if we continue the debate on its current terms. In the real world, there has to be an event in order to kick-start this next stage in the process. This event could be a second independence referendum, constitutional change or, preferably, both at the same time.

I have often wondered why unionists never ask themselves what nationalists do not want them to do. What step could unionism take which would make life difficult for nationalism? What could send nationalism into terminal decline?

The answer is hidden in plain sight; it is a multi-option referendum.

The first question: do you want constitutional change? If the answer is no, the status quo remains in place and the answer to the second question is irrelevant, much as the answer to the tax-raising question in the 1997 devolution referendum would have been irrelevant had the answer to the first question been no.

But if the answer is yes, which I’m certain it would be, the second question becomes relevant: should that constitutional change be independence or home rule (or whatever becomes the agreed term for enhanced devolution)?

It is almost inconceivable, in my reading of it, that the Tories will reach this position. They are too emotional, too stubborn. The echo of their 20th century refusal to support devolution, and the decades they have since spent paying penance, is loud and clear.

And so, not for the first time, this constitutional parcel will land at the feet of the Labour Party. They should embrace it because, done correctly, the referendum would be likely to be a relatively comfortable win for home rule, and a large-scale rejection of independence.

On the face of it, Sir Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar appear to be halfway there. Their policy of decentralisation, or federalism, or home rule, or devo max, or whatever one wishes to call it, is the bones of the unionist vision for the rest of this century.

And, if there’s one thing unionism needs it is a positive vision. Unionism is struggling not because the SNP is popular, but because the UK is increasingly unpopular. If unionists have learned anything over the last decade, it is that relentless negativity based on a perverse sort of Stockholm Syndrome is not engendering long-term loyalty to the UK.

The other half, though – the referendum – is equally important. Like it or not, we find ourselves with a new precedent that major constitutional decisions require a manifesto commitment followed by validation in a referendum.

To nail the first part, then fail the second part, would risk a rapid return to the issue.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that the nationalists are flunking their chance to get over the line with those sceptical but open-minded voters. But the unionists’ failure to keep those voters in the tent says much about their own performance.

Unionism is dying for vision. And the UK will die if it doesn’t get some.

Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters and Zero Matters


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