The paradox of unionism: where do Remainers stand on Scottish independence?

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Tim Farron, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale in Cumbria, tweeted a controversial statement which has attracted a lot of attention and comment:

On the face of it, assuming that someone who supported remaining in the EU would also support the UK Union staying intact appears reasonable. However, Brexit has changed how many Remainers view the UK Union, although not for the ignoble motive that Tim Farron disappointingly attributes to them.

Since the 2016 referendum, the government has gone out of its way to alienate those who voted to remain, so it’s hardly surprising that there’s not a lot of research being done on this cohort’s attitudes. One exception is Brexit-backing Lord Ashcroft’s research on England and the Union, conducted in August 2019. Ashcroft found only eight per cent of English voters thought Scotland should no longer be part of the UK  and their reason was that they think Scotland is unfairly advantaged and English taxpayers subsidise benefits that they themselves don’t receive, like free prescriptions.

Unfortunately, there’s no breakdown between Leave and Remain voters, but the polling on whether keeping the UK Union together trumps Brexit can be used as a proxy. On this question, 70 per cent of Conservative Remainers and 76 per cent of Labour Remainers chose Scotland remaining in the UK over Brexit, with 17 per cent and 7per cent respectively somewhat surprisingly prioritising Brexit. It was Leave voters who wanted Brexit at any cost though. A whopping 76 per cent of Conservative Leavers backed breaking up the UK to achieve Brexit, compared with 33 per cent of ‘Lexiters’. Perhaps the Conservative and Unionist Party, to give the party its full name, should consider re-branding itself.

What many politicians systematically underestimate is how profoundly patriotic most Remainers are. They fought to keep the UK in the EU precisely because they wanted the very best for their country. EU membership enabled us to punch above our weight on the world stage, levelled up our industries through competition-driven innovation, and brought great prosperity (although successive Westminster governments failed to distribute that wealth fairly, but that’s another story). It also afforded tremendous opportunities at an individual, commercial and cultural level – opportunities to which you can give a name and demonstrate the benefits. As an example: Freedom of Movement fosters increased understanding and cooperation, the acquisition of new skills, and personal growth, to mention but three advantages.

In contrast, none of the alleged opportunities afforded by Brexit have ever been specified. One of the most memorable exchanges in the Exiting the EU Select Committee came on 15 March, 2017, when Michael Gove asked David Davis to explain what exciting ideas were on the list of “things we can do outside the EU that we couldn’t do within it.”

“I don’t do excitement,” said Davis, laughing as he dodged the question.

Gove didn’t take the hint.

“Let me use a synonym,” he persisted. “Alluring, engaging, interesting, provocative, or worthy of being shared with this committee.” Gove smiled, content with his verbal flourish.

“Neither am I a journalist. I don’t do provocative either,” replied Davis.

In a Brexit context, “opportunity” is a tantalising but ultimately vague word that Boris Johnson waves around in his speeches, like the dead kipper enveloped in false claims which he used as a prop in his leadership bid. He’s blowing £93million of tax-payers’ money on a ‘shock & awe’ advertising campaign to remind us that transition is ending. The government’s nudge unit has gone into Orwellian overdrive. Glossy ads seek to convince us that new trade barriers will bring prosperity, more complex customs formalities are a golden opportunity, and an increase in red tape is a source of optimism. It baffles Remainers how anybody who truly loves our country, and cares about the UK Union, could so disrespect it as to spin such blatant lies.

If Remainers’ unionism and patriotism is admitted, what of their loyalty? Is it not divided? Boris Johnson, admirer of Pericles and a supposed internationalist, born in New York and proud holder of American nationality (until the tax implications became too costly, whereupon he renounced it) claimed that being a British citizen and a European citizen was mutually incompatible. It would mean split allegiance.

For many Remainers, this was an extraordinarily outdated, reductionist claim to make in a multi-cultural society. It was “Sophie’s Choice” politics. Remainers might just as well have been told that they could love only one of their children, or just one parent. It was nothing but authoritarian gibberish, a way of weaponising identity to prosecute a culture war. We can be British and European at the same time, in the same way that we can be English and British, or any other of the UK family of nationalities and British.

If Remainers are patriotic and loyal unionists, what is all the fuss about? Recent polls found 1-in-5 Scottish Remainers had switched to ‘YES‘ on the independence question, helping to boost the campaign to a 10 per cent lead in the polls. To caveat this, there is no official *NO* campaign. Indeed, the Unionists are in complete disarray. While Nicola Sturgeon has been a positive role model and has garnered praise for her measured handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Boris Johnson has proved to be a liability. Meanwhile, newly-appointed Scottish Conservatives Leader Douglas Ross has yet to find a positive, inclusive vision that campaigners can coalesce around, and if Ruth Davidson’s recent trouncing by Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament is anything to go by, she has lost her mojo.

What of Remainers in England? Surely they don’t support Scottish independence? Here’s where it gets tricky. Remainers tend to place strong emphasis on British values — values this government with its dishonesty, sleaze and cronyism is violating. Given their sense of fair play, many Remainers feel honour-bound to back a second independence referendum. It’s consistent with having wanted another one on Brexit, once its true nature became known, plus Brexit represents a material breach of contract. Scottish people voted to stay part of the UK because they were told by the UK government it was the only way to remain in the EU. Of course, English Remainers don’t want Scotland to leave, and will be immensely sad if the UK breaks up, but they feel empathy with Scotland as a victim of Tory bullying and mis-rule.

Meme by Sadie Parker

The government cannot, therefore, rely on Remainers, who would normally be their natural allies in a struggle to keep the UK Union together, to help out. Judging from the White Paper on the Internal Market, the government’s arguments are exactly the same as those used by the Remain campaign in 2016. The hypocrisy is too bitter a pill to swallow. Yes, Brexit will be awful, and the break-up of the UK Union would be just as bad, if not worse. Yet unlike England, which has to rebuild its trade framework from scratch and the result won’t ever be as good as the one we’ve given up, Scotland would be leaving what it feels is an abusive, unequal relationship to be enfolded into the warm embrace of the EU. There it could thrive and prosper as other small nations, like Ireland, do.

Are the Conservatives even sincere about wanting to maintain the UK Union? The fact that Lord Ashcroft conducted polling research on England and the Union in the first place suggests the government is contemplating letting Scotland (and possibly Northern Ireland) leave. For the sake of appearances, it will put up a dazzling pretence of trying to save the Union. Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings appears to be lining up Remainers to take the blame for anything that goes wrong with Brexit, so the loss of Scotland can be added to a very long list.

If this government were serious about wanting to keep the UK Union together, it would seek, even at this late hour, to unite the four home nations and reconcile Leavers and Remainers by choosing a version of Brexit that would satisfy the majority. In short, EEA ( Norway) or EFTA (Norway, Switzerland)

Blinded by ideology, this government lacks the imagination to do that. Perhaps Tim Farron would do better to turn his attention to government and ask Boris Johnson at PMQs if, when he dreamed of being World King as a child, he ever thought he’d be the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.