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.

The study of unionism also suffers from its pejorative associations. Quite apart from the image it conjures up of bigots in bowler hats and its apparent connection to the political right, unionism is also perceived to be inauthentic. Hugh MacDiarmid, who listed his hobby in Who’s Who as Anglophobia, rejected the ‘touts and toadies and lickspittles of the English Ascendancy’ in Scotland as collaborators with an alien oppressor. To uphold the Union was to be false to Scotland. MacDiarmid’s failure to empathise with unionism as a genuine mode of Scottish patriotism has been inherited by his successors in the Scottish intelligentsia, and this selectivity continues to underpin the academic preference for the study of authentic nationalists over inauthentic unionists. Nevertheless, some revisionist historians have recently shown that William Wallace and Robert Bruce, icons of Scotland’s War of Independence against England in the late 13th and early 14th century, became unionist heroes in 19th-century Scottish culture. Without Wallace and Bruce, so Victorian Scots argued, Scotland would have been conquered by Edward I and incorporated as a vassal people within a Plantagenet despotism. Instead, late medieval Scots had preserved their independence, allowing their fortunate successors to join in union with England in 1707 as equal partners in the British state. Unionism, it is clear, did not preclude all expressions of Scottish nationalism.

Moreover, the emphatic view of many Scottish unionists that the Union of 1707 was a treaty between two equal, sovereign kingdoms hints at the latent capacity of unionism to subvert the unexamined shibboleths of the British state. For the Union of 1707 is far from self-explanatory. The Union of the Parliaments in 1707 followed a century after the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when the Scottish royal line had succeeded to the English throne. This loose personal union preserved separate Scottish and English kingdoms, which just happened to share the same monarch. Thus the eventual union of the kingdoms was an odd arrangement negotiated on behalf of Queen Anne as Queen of England with herself as Queen of Scotland. The conventional English understanding of the Union of 1707 is that Scotland was incorporated within the English state by Act of Parliament, and that, in the words of the chief guru of English constitutionalism, Albert Venn Dicey, ‘neither the Act of Union with Scotland, nor the Dentists Act 1878, has more claim than the other to be considered a supreme law.’ In other words, the Union was just a statute like any other and does not constitute the fundamental law of the British state. This is not the way Scots – unionist as well as nationalist, it should be stressed – have interpreted the events of 1707. For a start – and this is not mere pedantry – they have tended to describe the Union of 1707 as the Treaty of Union rather than the Act of Union. After all, it was an agreement between sovereign powers which was ratified by separate acts in the Scottish and English Parliaments. In addition, some of the central Articles of Union seem to have been entrenched as unalterable fundamental law within the British constitution.

The dissident Scottish interpretation of the Union found its most famous expression in the judgment of the lord president of the court of session, Lord Cooper (himself a unionist), in the celebrated case of MacCormick v. Lord Advocate in 1953. This was colloquially known as the royal numerals case, brought by the nationalist politician John MacCormick against the assumption by the new queen of the style Elizabeth II – though she was patently the first monarch by the name of Elizabeth to reign over the post-1707 United Kingdom. Although Cooper found that MacCormick had no standing to bring the case and that the queen’s title was a prerogative matter, he nevertheless advanced an anti-Diceyan reading of the Treaty of Union, argued that certain articles were guaranteed as unalterable in all time coming, and expressed his contempt for Dicey’s doctrine of the unlimited sovereignty of parliament, ‘a distinctively English principle which has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law’. Cooper’s remarks provided an inspiration for Scottish constitutional lawyers and political theorists to probe the significance of the Union as Britain’s unacknowledged written constitution. Is the British Parliament itself a creature of the Union, and as such ‘born unfree’?

Nevertheless, during the 1980s, ideological pressures transformed the unionist mainstream – by then Conservative – into adherents of the sort of conformism so crudely caricatured by MacDiarmid. Before the 1980s, unionism had encompassed not only radically divergent interpretations of the British constitution, but also devolutionist as well as integrationist approaches to the maintenance of the United Kingdom. This was as true of the Conservative and Unionist Party as it was of the broader culture of unionism to be found among the other non-nationalist political parties. During the late 1940s, the Conservatives ostentatiously defended Scottish nationhood against Labour’s misleadingly named policy of nationalisation, for in truth centralisation in Whitehall, they argued, had nothing ‘national’ to offer the Scots. The rise of Thatcherism, however, drastically changed the culture of unionism. Thatcher reversed Ted Heath’s opportunistic support for Scottish devolution and abandoned the traditional Tory sensitivity to the needs of the component parts of the United Kingdom. Now unionism really had come to mean uniformity. In a speech in Glasgow in November 1987, Thatcher’s chancellor, Nigel Lawson, complained that too many sectors of Scottish society were ‘sheltered from market forces and exhibit a culture of dependence rather than that of enterprise’. Assimilation to the values of Thatcherite England was the recipe for economic success. Although John Major, a reflective and principled unionist in the eyes of McLean and McMillan, tried to reinvent a more positive unionism during the early 1990s with his ‘taking stock’ exercise, the damage had been done. Unionism was now widely misunderstood and discredited, associated exclusively with the Conservatives, and its former nuances, subversions and nationalist pretensions all but forgotten.

Other factors had been at work too. McLean and McMillan draw a sharp distinction between ‘primordial’ and ‘instrumental’ unionisms. Whereas primordial unionists believe that the Union is of value ‘in and of itself’, instrumental unionists value the union rather for its good consequences. In the course of the 20th century, McLean and McMillan report a growing gulf between the primordial unionism of Northern Ireland and the instrumental unionism of mainland Britain. Moreover, British unionists came to see their fellow unionists in Ulster less as ‘a bulwark of Union’ than as a narrowly ‘sectional interest’. During the second half of the 20th century, instrumental unionism took the particular form of ‘welfare-state unionism’. Following the loss of empire, the Scots continued to support the Union because of the benefits it brought to the peripheries. Even if Thatcherite rhetoric hadn’t drowned out the ready celebration of diversity found in traditional unionism, Thatcherite policy challenged the rationale of welfare-state unionism.

If unionism of any stripe no longer has any ideological purchase outside Northern Ireland, what is the long-term prognosis for the Union? McLean and McMillan reckon that, notwithstanding the terminal exhaustion of unionist ideology, the British ‘union state will lumber on, anomalies and all, for at least a few decades more’. Scottish nationalism scarcely seems much healthier, however. The experience of devolved politics since 1999 has severely dented Scottish self-confidence. The new Parliament has not attracted major politicians. Labour heavyweights, such as Gordon Brown and Robin Cook, stayed in London; even Alex Salmond, the leader of the SNP, decided after a term in the Scottish Parliament that he preferred to abandon Edinburgh for the clubbability of Westminster. More significantly, after only a year as first minister of the devolved Scottish executive, Donald Dewar, the father of devolved government, died and was succeeded by the relatively obscure Henry McLeish. An absence of name recognition undermined public perceptions of the gravitas of the devolved Parliament and the quality of its work.

The Scottish media might have been expected to help people understand the new Parliament and its innovative working methods. Whereas Westminster maintains a division between select committees, which examine the workings of government, and standing committees, which scrutinise legislation, the Scottish Parliament brought together both functions in single bodies. On past experience the Scottish media might have been expected to crow about the enlightened, joined-up government being pioneered in Edinburgh far away from a crusty, hidebound Westminster. After all, the Scottish press had treated the devolution project sympathetically since the 1970s, nurturing the somewhat recherché issue of constitutional reform until it became the dominant story in Scottish politics. However, the winning of devolved government meant the loss of this vital narrative thread, for which the humdrum realities of parliamentary reporting provided an inadequate substitute, new initiatives notwithstanding. How were the media to maintain interest in the new Parliament? The answer lay in following the worst of metropolitan habits, focusing on personality at the expense of policy or procedure, and on sensationalising any evidence of sleaze or petty corruption. Since 1999 the Scottish public have been treated to the saga of ‘Officegate’, a scandal surrounding Henry McLeish’s constituency office expenses, which saw him step down as first minister after only a year. His successor, Jack McConnell, survived the trials of ‘Villagate’, an investigation into his family’s New Year visit to the Mallorcan villa of the BBC television presenter Kirsty Wark. More recently, David McLetchie, the Scottish Conservative leader, who had, naturally enough, helped to fan the flames of previous scandals, was himself brought down by ‘Taxigate’, which concerned his misleading expenses claims for taxis on supposed parliamentary business.

These scandals have themselves been overshadowed by the negative publicity surrounding the construction of the new parliament building at Holyrood. This had initially been costed, significantly just before the devolution referendum of 1997, in the range of £10 to £40 million. By the time the Parliament met for the first time in its new accommodation in 2004, however, the estimated cost had risen to £431 million. This became the defining story of devolution for the media: that Scotland’s political class was too incompetent to commission a properly costed building, never mind run the country from it. And would the people have voted for devolution had they known just how misleading the initial costing of the Parliament was? Lord Fraser’s inquiry into the building fiasco legitimately kept the scandal on the front pages and in the news bulletins, though the eventual Fraser Report of 2004 avoided hyperbole. The site was difficult, but had been preferred to easier sites away from the symbolic heart of Edinburgh. A major blunder had arisen from the choice of ‘construction management’ as the fast-track procurement method for the Parliament, which placed the risk firmly with the client. There had been tensions between EMBT, the Barcelona firm of the Catalan architect Enric Miralles, whose death in 2000 had further interrupted progress on the building, and his less fanciful Edinburgh partners, RMJM. The attack on the Twin Towers imposed additional costs to do with improving security and strengthening the building. Above all, it was impossible to meet all the published objectives of the Holyrood project – a significant building in a central site, built to a tight timeframe and giving value for the taxpayers’ money. Fraser notes that where these inevitably came into conflict, value for money was sacrificed for quality or speed of completion (though often without any significant acceleration being achieved).

Given their problems with the building and an unsympathetic press, it’s tempting to sympathise with Scotland’s beleaguered politicians – until one remembers their cravenness. The power of the churches – Roman Catholic as well as Presbyterian – in Scottish public life meant that there remained a lingering suspicion at the time of the devolution settlement that Scotland might become an illiberal democracy. Indeed, abortion was retained as a reserved matter at Westminster, for fear that the Scottish Parliament might impose stricter limits in this area. A familiar narrowmindedness surfaced during the first session of the Scottish Parliament, when the executive legislated to repeal Clause 2A (the Scottish local government equivalent of Section 28), which prohibited the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by schools and local authorities. This measure provoked an enormous furore, led by the Catholic Church and the evangelical businessman Brian Souter of Stagecoach, who funded a private referendum on the measure. On this occasion the executive kept its nerve, but the politicians had been traumatised.

One of the minor provisions of the devolution machinery regarded what have come to be known as Sewel motions. These are named after the Scottish Office minister Lord Sewel, who proposed the convention that Westminster would pass laws in devolved areas only with the express approval of the Scottish Parliament. Back in the late 1990s, political observers predicted friction between the Edinburgh and Westminster parliaments, but what we have had instead is collusion and an abundance of Sewel motions permitting Westminster to legislate on supposedly devolved matters. During the first session of the devolved parliament, 41 Sewel motions were passed. Some of these were on technical matters, but in the wake of the controversy over Clause 2A the executive has ceded the legislative responsibility for sexual offences and civil partnerships, including same-sex marriages, back to Westminster. Rather than challenging the authority of Westminster, the Scottish Parliament has preferred to cower behind it when inconvenient social issues appear on the agenda. Of course, global events since 2001 have rehabilitated a kind of ‘instrumental unionism’. People, arguably, feel safer behind the security apparatus of a large union-state, and have become more concerned about international affairs. But Scotland’s politicians and journalists have also done their bit to make devolution feel so parochial.