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Bitter Together: Can Rishi Sunak rebuild the relationship with Scotland?

Is time up for the Union? Sunak in Perth during the Tory leadership race | Credit: Alamy

Bitter Together: Can Rishi Sunak rebuild the relationship with Scotland?

It was during the Tory leadership race, that interminable popularity contest which culminated in just over 80,000 party members electing the shortest-serving prime minister in UK history, that Rishi Sunak appeared to confuse Darlington for Scotland.

In a podcast interview with journalist Isabel Hardman, which was released on the same day Sunak made it into the final round of voting alongside Liz Truss, the former chancellor was asked whether he would spend much time north of the border as PM, something Boris Johnson had conspicuously failed to do.

“I think people can already see that I take that seriously,” Sunak began. “I was the chancellor who set up an economic campus for the government and for the Treasury in Darlington... I also spent a lot of time there myself, personally...”

Within minutes of the clip appearing online, the SNP’s well-oiled machine fired into action, a succession of the party’s MSPs and MPs reminding Sunak on Twitter that not only is Darlington not in Scotland, but it actually lies just a short drive from his North Yorkshire constituency. 

Whether he meant to locate the English town in Scotland, and we must charitably assume he did not, Sunak’s answer was indicative of the way many in his party think of “the North”, a hard-to-define part of the UK, far away – both geographically and politically – from Westminster. Ironically, it’s a view shared by many Scots who increasingly feel that the government in London and the decisions it makes are remote from their daily lives.

As we now know, the leadership race would ultimately end well for Sunak – even though he lost.

Liz Truss's premiership lasted just 49 days, less time than the contest which elected her. The now infamous “mini” Budget, which blew a hole the UK’s already listing economy, served the twin purpose of sinking her economic prospectus and making her erstwhile opponent look like he had known what he was talking about all along.

But it wasn’t just on economic matters that the two former Cabinet colleagues diverged. On Scotland, too, and the prospect of a second independence referendum, there was a noticeable difference in rhetoric.

While Sunak spoke about the “values that bind us as a United Kingdom” and “making the emotional argument from the heart” in defence of the Union, Truss grabbed headlines – and no doubt Tory support – for calling First Minister Nicola Sturgeon an “attention-seeker” and saying she would ignore requests for a second referendum.

But if the rhetoric from the two candidates was different, the reality of the UK Government’s  position on a second referendum will remain the same regardless of who’s in Downing Street. In short, there’s isn’t going to be one. 

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already pencilled in October next year for the vote, but unless there’s a surprise result in the Supreme Court, that looks like a forlorn hope. And with Labour currently riding high in the polls, all talk of the next general election being turned into a de facto vote on independence has been quietly dropped for now. 

But while there is currently no real pressure on the UK Government to accede to demands for a new referendum, there’s a desperate need to breathe new life into the moribund 315-year-old Union.

Sunak visits Rothesay in August 2020 | Credit: Alamy

Back in July, during the leadership contest, Sunak’s team briefed journalists that he would  “champion the Union” and run the “most active UK Government in Scotland since devolution”. That means ditching the long-standing policy of “devolve and forget,” according to Sunak, and taking a more hands-on approach north of the border. That strategy is not without its risks, however, and could easily be portrayed as an attempt to undermine devolution. Nor is it a new idea; Theresa May said exactly the same thing in 2017.

“For too long the attitude in Whitehall has been to devolve and forget,” the then prime minister told her party during a speech five years ago in Glasgow. “As the government serving the whole United Kingdom… the UK Government exercises a responsibility on behalf of the whole UK that transcends party politics and encompasses all aspects of our national life.” 

The difficulties of that interventionist approach were highlighted in a recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey which found strong support for devolution among Scots. Published by the independent Scottish Centre for Social Research, the survey gives an indication as to what the Tories are up against. It found three-quarters of Scots believe the Scottish Government should have the most influence on the way the country is run, compared with just 14 per cent who think the UK Government should. Nearly two-thirds said the Scottish Parliament had given Scotland a stronger voice in the UK, compared with just seven per cent who thought the opposite. 

A more hands-on approach could easily be portrayed as meddling.

Rishi Sunak was born in Southampton in 1980 to parents of Indian descent who emigrated to Britain from East Africa in the 1960s. Despite being a child of Thatcher’s Britain, he made no allusions to social division, to boarded-up shops, and failing schools that his opponent Liz Truss was fond of during her successful pitch to become leader. 

Instead, Sunak spoke of helping his pharmacist mum and being inspired by the work ethic of his father, a GP. He attended the prestigious Winchester College, alma mater of the Victoria novelist Anthony Trollope as well as former chancellor and Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, and Geoffrey Howe, who served as both chancellor and foreign secretary under Thatcher. In truth, he probably saw little of the poverty which Truss claimed had so shaped her politics during her upbringing in Paisley and Leeds.

While studying at Oxford, the young Sunak was featured in a BBC documentary, Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl, which looked at his parents’ decision to have him privately educated. In a 10-second clip which resurfaced on social media this summer, the future prime minister sits alongside his dad in the family home as he says, “I have friends who are aristocrats. I have friends who are upper class. I have friends who are working-class... well, not working-class...”

But if Sunak grew up in closeted middle-class privilege, he has since transcended that background altogether, becoming incredibly wealthy in the process. He began his career in the City with Goldman Sachs before moving to the US to study for an MBA at Stanford. It was there he would meet his future wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of NR Narayana Murthy, the billionaire founder of the global IT firm Infosys.

Despite Sunak’s extreme wealth – the Sunday Times Rich List has estimated he and Murty’s combined fortune to be more than £700m – he appears to better understand the challenges facing ordinary families this winter than his predecessor, whose slash and burn supply-side economics threw the UK economy into a tailspin, heaping misery on those already struggling to heat their homes and feed their kids. In the latest in a series of U-turns, the new prime minister last week backtracked on an earlier decision not to attend the COP27 climate summit in Egypt due to what he called “depressing domestic challenges”. 

However, if the cost-of-living crisis is the undisputed top priority Sunak’s government faces, there is another existential threat currently kicking its heels on the sidelines. As much as the prime minister and his colleagues would like it to, the demands for a second independence referendum will not go away. The issue could be taken out of his hands altogether if the Supreme Court decides in favour of the Scottish Government that it is within the competence of Holyrood to legislate for such a vote. 

While the five Supreme Court justices are not expected to deliver their ruling for many weeks, the smart money is on them rejecting the Scottish Government’s case. And while Sturgeon previously said such an outcome would force her party to turn the next general election into a “de facto referendum” on separation, there was no explicit mention of that policy in her speech to the party’s conference in Aberdeen last month.

Against the backdrop of a long cold winter, war in Europe, and the ongoing economic harm caused by Brexit, there is little appetite for another referendum at the moment. And the SNP knows it. Polling suggests only around a third of Scots are in favour of holding a referendum next year on Sturgeon’s timetable. 

The irony of Brexit is that while it created a pretext for indyref2, it has helped further undermine an already faltering UK economy and shown the profound damage which major constitutional change can cause, at least in the short term. 

Aware of the parallels which can be drawn with the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the first minister has made much of her government’s decision to publish a series of papers examining the major uncertainties of separation. The most recent looked at issues including currency, border arrangements, and Scotland re-joining the EU. The response, even among those who support independence, was withering, with former Common Weal director Robin McAlpine concluding that the document was “utter pish”.

Right now, the political case for independence looks stronger than the economic case. Since 2016, Britain has had five prime ministers, an unprecedented period of upheaval in the recent history of one of Europe’s usually most stable countries. None of those leaders – even those who won general elections – were voted for by large numbers of Scots. Indeed, if recent polling is to be believed, the Tories look set to be completely wiped out north of the border at the next election.

The blame for that would surely rest with the UK party which has felt increasingly aloof as it continued to stuff the Cabinet with such deeply unsympathetic characters as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Suella Braverman. Alister Jack will apparently continue to get the nod as Scottish secretary until the end of time, regardless of who the PM is. 

But the Scottish Conservatives are not without blame either, at times appearing more constitutionally obsessed than even the SNP. There have been behind-the-scenes murmurings over the future of leader Douglas Ross for many months amid his flip-flopping over partygate, Boris Johnson, and the mini-Budget. 

Sunak faces off against Nicola Sturgeon during a BBC debate ahead of the 2019 general election | Credit: Alamy

Although his predecessor set a particularly low bar, failing to even call Sturgeon during her time in office, Sunak has at least attempted to be more proactive in building relationships north of the border. He called Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, Wales’ first minister, within a day of taking office and has brought Michael Gove back into the Cabinet, giving him the post of Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, with responsibility for coordinating with the devolved administrations. 

Sunak also appointed Andrew Bowie, the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for International Trade – the first Scottish Tory MP appointed to a non-Scotland Office department in 27 years. 

But it’s likely to take more than a few phone calls and a handful of canny appointments to arrest the party’s slide north of the border. Perhaps the only consolation for the Tories is that things are also looking pretty bleak for the SNP. The party recently faced its biggest rebellion since coming to power over its plan to reform the Gender Recognition Act and pressure is mounting on beleaguered Health Secretary Humza Yousaf over the state of the NHS as we head into the winter. Finance Secretary John Swinney has said more than £1bn worth of cuts will need to be made as Scotland faces its most challenging financial situation since devolution.

Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt will also have difficult spending choices to make. The Treasury’s medium-term fiscal plan will now be delivered on November 17, with Hunt warning of “difficult decisions ahead”, not least whether the UK Government uprates Universal Credit and the state pension in line with soaring inflation and whether it imposes a new wave of austerity to pay for it. 

The new prime minister will not have his challenges to seek as he attempts to restore stability following the disastrous tenure of his predecessor. But amid the gathering economic storm, the momentum behind the push for a second independence referendum already feels like it has stalled. 

The UK remains a bitterly divided place both politically and economically. But with huge challenges occupying the governments at Westminster and Holyrood, the Union looks safe for now.  

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