Nicola Sturgeon laid down the gauntlet on Monday when she published a new Referendum Bill to prepare the legislative groundwork for another referendum. The key question now is how should the UK government respond?
The short answer: with extreme caution. As Onward set out in a landmark study of public attitudes towards the Union this week, unionists could fatally damage their cause if they take the First Minister’s bait and reject a vote outright. The truth is that just one in three Scots wants a referendum on the SNP’s timescale and the same proportion say they would be more likely to vote “Yes” if the UK government shuts down the issue completely.
The battle for the Union is only lost if we ignore the lessons of recent years, where rising antagonism between Edinburgh and Westminster has largely served to rally Scots around the Saltire. In a straight choice between constitutional infighting and independence, Scots increasingly choose independence. But crucially, when you give Scots another option – of the two governments working together in a reformed UK – the balance of opinion swings back to the Union. This is where the Union’s advantage lies.
Indeed, when given this three-way choice, Scottish voters – including those heavily in favour of independence – strongly believe issues such as foreign affairs and the economy are best dealt with within a reformed UK. On every policy issue we tested, a majority of voters believe that the best outcome would come from better collaboration between Scottish and Westminster governments, not division or the status quo. The problem is they don’t think it is on offer.
This should be instructive for policymakers who have grappled with the Union in recent years. Too often Westminster has played the SNP’s game of antagonism. Instead, the UK government should focus on building a United Kingdom focused on shared contribution, benefits and identity. One where Scots feel like their values can be best served within the UK, not outside it, and the benefits of partnership are felt by all.
This is not where we are today. Only 52 per cent of Scots feel somewhat or very British, compared to 80 per cent who feel somewhat or very Scottish. The vast majority (73 per cent) of Yes voters identify as very Scottish, but only 15% identify as very British. Scottish voters describe Scotland in terms like “open”, “progressive” and “welcoming” and the UK as “conservative” and “safe”. Forty–three per cent of Scots agree with the statement “Scotland has a distinct political culture and set of values that are incompatible with the rest of the UK”.
But there are clear places to rebuild. Scottish voters do not feel that the Scottish government has had its priorities in the right order. When asked to list their own priorities, just one in seven say constitutional reform compared to more than half for health and social care, jobs and employment and managing the Covid crisis. And 61 per cent of those surveyed felt that the focus on constitutional issues has distracted politicians from working on public services like health, education and the police.
When looking specifically at the pandemic response, there is strong recognition of the UK government’s role in providing economic support and delivering the vaccine success. Even Yes voters are supportive of the UK’s vaccine rollout, with net approval of 25 per cent. Overall, 71 per cent of Scots believe the vaccine rollout is going well in the UK, while only 68 per cent believe it is going well in Scotland.
The UK government should deploy a deliberate strategy of being the grown up in the room. They should focus on partnering with, rather than preaching to, the Scottish government, and highlight where this constructive approach is not reciprocated. They should focus on delivery of key UK initiatives, most notably elements of the pandemic response such as economic support and the vaccine rollout. And they should seek to demonstrate where Scottish voters’ values are intrinsic to UK policy, especially on the commitment to the NHS. In essence, ministers should show – not tell – the benefits of the Union. It will take more than a couple of Union Jacks to do so.