William Wallace, Unionist

Colin Kidd

  • State of the Union: Unionism and the Alternatives in the United Kingdom since 1707 by Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan
    Oxford, 283 pp, £45.00, September 2005, ISBN 0 19 925820 1

At the time of the devolution referendum of 1997, doom-mongers feared that the Scots were about to join ‘a motorway without exits’. Separation from England seemed inevitable in the long run. En route, Scottish politics would be hampered by a systemic instability. After all, the anti-devolutionists whined, the Nationalists needed to win only once in Scottish parliamentary elections to bring about independence; to preserve the Union, the parties of the Union needed to win every time. The least worst outcome for Scotland might be a ‘velvet divorce’, but the likeliest prospect seemed to be an estrangement of the crockery-smashing kind. For, Cassandras warned, the existence of a Scottish parliament would serve to illuminate unjustifiable anomalies in British politics, such as higher spending per head north of the border and the right of Scottish MPs at Westminster to vote on specifically English legislation. These unfairnesses would not go down well with Middle England, and would almost certainly bring about an English nationalist backlash. Scottish nationalists, of course, welcomed a future pregnant with these possibilities. The delusions of empire had been shattered decades before, and now, it seemed, the Scots were set fair to discard British statehood as a post-imperial anachronism irrelevant to the needs – psychic and material – of the Scottish people. It wouldn’t happen overnight, of course; but continuing friction between the Scottish and UK Parliaments would expose devolution as an unworkable compromise, and further fray the weakened bonds of Union.

The media were irresistibly drawn towards the political drama associated with the notion that devolution was an unsatisfactory halfway house, and paid less attent-ion to those Scottish Labour politicians, such as Donald Dewar and George Robertson, who anticipated that devolution would settle the Scottish Question, and conveniently kill off the nationalist threat to Labour’s Scottish stronghold. It was unseemly, however, to express such sentiments in the raw. Home Rule was a momentous constitutional reform, and New Labour’s radicalism in this area was to be properly celebrated as such (not least because this drew attention away from the new government’s timid adherence to Conservative spending limits). Nor was devolution ostensibly about partisan advantage. The new parliament was set up on the additional member model of proportional representation, with voters enjoying two votes, one for the election of constituency MSPs on a first past the post basis, the second to elect party list MSPs according to a formula designed to compensate parties whose broad support does not translate into seats under first past the post. Given this weighted system, the Scottish executive, as expected, has taken the form of Labour-Liberal coalitions in both post-devolution elections. The additional member scheme also makes an outright Nationalist victory very unlikely. What really matters to Labour is the long-term preservation of its vital block of Scottish seats in the United Kingdom parliament. Sharing devolved government with the Liberal Democrats is a small price to pay for that.

Seven years on from the first elections to the Scottish Parliament, it seems that devolution has soothed the nationalist itch. Yet, as Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan recognise in their study of the unionist political tradition, this still leaves unresolved the issue of what now underpins the British connection. For unionism, they argue, is now dead outside Northern Ireland. McLean and McMillan pose the intriguing question of whether a multinational ‘union state’ can survive without a sustaining ideology of unionism. The quest for an answer takes them back to the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, in large part because unionism – at least in its non-Irish manifestations – has not attracted the attention of historians and political scientists. Certainly, in the case of Scotland there is a huge literature on the nationalist movement, but only a couple of books which have sought to grapple with the appeal of the Union. A further complication in the case of Scotland is that for much of the 20th century – between 1912 and 1965 – the Conservatives in Scotland were known as the Unionist Party. The obvious difficulty of disentangling unionist sentiments from partisan allegiances is compounded by the awkwardness that the Union referred to in the name of the Scottish Unionist Party was not the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, but the British-Irish Union of 1800. Unlike the Union of 1800, the Anglo-Scottish Union was an uncontroversial given in British political life. It went largely uncontested in Scottish politics until the rise of the SNP during the last quarter of the 20th century, and before then its complacent supporters felt little need to articulate a positive ideology of Anglo-Scottish unionism.

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