What are the benefits of being a United Kingdom? This is the question that unionists are urgently trying to answer as pressure mounts for a second independence referendum in Scotland. The orthodox strategy, honed over the two decades since the advent of devolution in 1998, increasingly boils down to ‘cash’. The Union allows for the ‘pooling and sharing’ of resources across Britain – and thanks to the vagaries of the Barnett Formula, usually to the disproportionate benefit of Scots!
We saw the apex (or nadir) of this approach during the 2014 referendum, when proposals for a dramatic transfer of fresh powers to the Scottish Parliament, combined with keeping all the cash currently distributed via the Union, was sold to voters as ‘the best of both worlds’. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to recognise what a self-defeating strategy this is, implying as it does that the only good thing about being part of the UK is the money. It boggles the mind to see many of the sages behind this approach now telling us that we need a case for the Union that doesn’t rest on cash alone!
After all, what else is it supposed to rest on? The unfortunate result of two decades of ‘devolve and forget’ is that across vast areas of policy the Union doesn’t actually do very much. With territorial devocrats drawing bright red lines around whole areas of policy, especially education and health, it’s difficult to argue that being part of the UK actually delivers better outcomes on a huge range of issues which really matter to voters (beyond, of course, paying for them).
Likewise, the emotional foundations of the Union have been worn away. Decades of sustained campaigning by nationalists (and I include the small-n Labour variety in that) has seen the strength of the British identity dwindle year-by-year. As a result, emotive appeals to our shared nationhood – a potent weapon in the separatist arsenal – may fire up our base but, it is alleged, alienate swing voters.
Put all that together and the almost inescapable conclusion is that the case for the Union must rest on… the cash. Which, as pretty much everyone agrees, is not enough. Pass Go, try again.
Unionism’s traditional hierarchy, who have staked their reputations on devolution, will find this a hard pill to swallow. The temptation to fight the next referendum on the promise of yet more powers (perhaps packaged as ‘federalism’) will be very strong – and if it is fought soon, they will
have the tactical exigencies of an imminent campaign on their side.
But we need to wake up to the longer-term reality: if the case for Britain isn’t going to rest on cash alone, we must start the long-overdue work of building up those other pillars. That means actively trying to win the affections of the people for the Union – and that in turns means having the Union actually do things which ordinary voters notice and care about.
If we don’t, then eventually our shared identity, the essential cement of our state, will be completely worn away. And once there’s no such thing as a ‘British taxpayer’, there will not even be any cash.