Muscular unionism doesn't work - Truss must recalibrate the relationship between Westminster and Holyrood
There is an enduring image of a newly installed prime minister, Boris Johnson, walking up the steps of Bute House to be ‘welcomed’ to Scotland by the first minister as if he is the head of some foreign state. The fact that the booing came from the other side of the street was immaterial, Sturgeon’s face said it all and if she could have booed, she would have.
The juxtaposition of the two leaders, with Sturgeon on the top step and Johnson reaching up to shake her hand, was as important a message to the people of Scotland as what was later discussed inside the FM’s official home.
But the optics were exactly as the first minister would want them. He was a visitor being invited in.
New prime minister Liz Truss would be well advised to take some cognisance of that unfortunate imagery when she is considering her relationship with Scotland and her first official interactions with the leader of the devolved Scottish Government whom she has already branded an “attention seeker” who should be ignored.
Because that relationship, and how it is positioned, matters to the future of what Truss has already described as her “precious Union”. And falling into the trap of being seen as a tourist in your own country sets the tone and a pattern for who is perceived to be setting the rules.
At a time of a national crisis, when people across these islands are making heart-breaking decisions about eating or heating. When a war rages in Europe. When the ghost of a pandemic lingers. When our economy falters on the brink of recession. When people are dying for want of medical care. When our environment is on life support. And when our politics has fallen into such disrepair, performative politics should have no role.
These are serious times that require serious minds, and with the memory of a lightweight Johnson bouncing happily out of No 10 on his metaphorical space hopper still seared on our minds, if Truss is to stamp her authority on the job of bringing the whole country together during a time of great flux, then she must seriously consider her relationship as the leader of the whole of the UK with the respective (and respected) leaders of the devolved administrations.
And that doesn’t start by calling Sturgeon an “attention seeker” or the first minister of Wales a “low-energy Jeremy Corbyn”. And while these disparaging remarks can easily be dismissed as the red meat thrown during a heated leadership contest, Truss must now, as prime minister, set aside that kind of playground name-calling and show dignity, humility, and respect, while also making clear that she is in charge.
Muscular unionism just doesn’t work and fiddling with the mechanisms to cheat a vote rather than dealing with the systemic issues that have created an environment in which a vote seems reasonable, is a short-term political wheeze which will have long-term consequences
She can either go into battle over the constitution wearing blinkers to shield her from the stark realities of nationalist support or she can start to constructively make the case for the Union and the importance of devolution within it. But if her only response is to try and implement a Referendum Act which only harks back to the infamous 1979 Cunningham intervention which placed a higher bar for a ‘yes’ vote to succeed, then that could seriously backfire.
That kind of muscular unionism just doesn’t work and fiddling with the mechanisms to cheat a vote rather than dealing with the systemic issues that have created an environment in which a vote seems reasonable, is a short-term political wheeze which will have long-term consequences that only add fuel to the nationalists’ fire.
Truss needs to recalibrate the association between Westminster and Holyrood. To speak to the middle third of Scots that are not already entrenched in a position of yes or of no. To detail the advantages of being part of a larger whole. To tangibly demonstrate why those broad shoulders matter.
To evidence the added value that being part of the UK gives to everyday Scots. To make offers around policy areas like those contained within Levelling Up which have all but been absent north of the border, for reasons it is for the SNP Government to explain.
To suggest national initiatives that make it hard for the SNP Government to turn down without being exposed as acting in political self-interest. And importantly, to not just write cheques or fly Union Jacks over things like a national vaccine roll-out or a City Deal and then walk away without talking up the benefits.
Michael Moore was dubbed the Governor General during his time as Scottish Secretary and that distant colonial characterisation sticks. Truss also needs a Scotland Office that can take the political pulse of Scotland and understand the politics and how to navigate its way around them.
And she would do well to look again at Lord McConnell’s suggestions, back in 2019, of establishing a UK council of ministers that would include those from the devolved nations and be designed to thrive on cooperation and collaboration between departments rather than on conflict.
But equally, it is incumbent on the UK Government to hold the devolved administrations, which it set up, to account. Surely there can be no argument against that. The SNP’s record in government needs to be forensically interrogated by the vast resource at the disposal of the UK Government including within the great minds in the Treasury, and not just left to opposition parties at Holyrood.
Where, for instance, is the public debate on why Scotland’s new fiscal framework isn’t working? Where are the questions being asked of the Scottish Government about its £200m tax shortfall? Is that £200m not in the block grant anymore because it demanded the powers to raise taxes and then failed on its own projections?
This is about working with devolution but also demonstrating where things are not working well for the people it serves.
Truss’s premiership may have started in Scotland, but it is also where it could so easily end. It is for Truss to negotiate how best to play her Scottish card. But she starts with an advantage of not being a toff and of having a Scottish background.
She could renew that relationship, starting not on the steps of Bute House being greeted like a visitor, but over in Paisley, the town that does such a lot of heavy lifting for her Scottish credentials. And maybe she could invite Nicola Sturgeon to join her?