Scottish Independence: who will make the unionist case for young people?

Scottish Independence: who will make the unionist case for young people?

At the Conservative Leadership Election's Birmingham hustings on Tuesday, Rishi Sunak said something few politicians seem to have been willing to say out loud.

The problem with nationalism, he said, was that it was "very seductive". To combat the SNP, he continued, the Conservative Party had to fight the romantic idea with an argument that spoke to people's hearts.

If she had the time to spare from side-stepping piles of street garbage on the way to her poorly-attended Edinburgh Fringe show, Nicola Sturgeon might have paused to put the kettle on and rub her hands together with glee.

When it comes to the question of Scotland's place in the United Kingdom, she knows that unionism is devoid of standard bearers in the battle of romantic ideas. The SNP are adept at exploiting this fact on every political question.

Whilst a one-issue party remains absolute north of the border, any and every political matter is viewed through the independence lens. There will always be the need for more funding from Westminster; greater devolutional freedom; and further divergence on fiscal and monetary policy. In other words, an easy political hand for the SNP.

We have seen a clear policy of Westminster-scapegoating in action. Those of us living in Scotland during the pandemic remember Scotland's pointedly more cautious approach to lifting coronavirus restrictions - which in any case resulted in a higher death rate than in England.

Indeed, who can remember the last Prime Minister's Questions that Ian Blackford - the SNP's Westminster leader - did not stand up and decry the "Tory cost of living crisis"?

It is easy for the SNP to lay blame on a political regime that rarely receives widespread support in Scotland and claim that having obtained independence (though still with the SNP running the show I am sure) the issues would be addressed differently. But this does not take into account the international nature of the current crisis affecting global markets. Nor does it take into account the immediate lack of resources an independent Scottish government would face.

As Sunak learnt from the Brexit debate, however, deep-rooted instincts towards culturally defined communities are far stronger than complex and intangible questions of the economy.

It isn't just the facts of the debate that fail to bring Scots flocking to the Unionist banner - it's the debate itself.

As Stephen Daisley wrote recently for The Spectator in the wake of the annual GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) announcement, breaking down the independence debate to mere figures is a political fallacy. At that point, the strength of the case for Unionism waxes and wanes with the strength of the country's finances.

If that is the tack the Government wants to take with Scotland, they will quickly see their plans to avoid a referendum at all costs derailed in the form of 18% inflation.

Instead, as Rishi made the point, a romantic argument must be made. The issue, of course, is that Scotland's heyday as a member of the Union is widely regarded as a national embarrassment. The SNP are keen to encourage this view.

It is easy for them to do this whilst education remains a devolved issue.

Scottish Conservative party leader Douglas Ross
Calls for Scottish independence and Boris Johnson's resignation cause headaches for Scottish Conservative party leader Douglas Ross. Image from the Daily Record.

Last year the Scottish government was criticised for failing to release Standardised Assessment test results for "political reasons", whilst this year an academic has accused nationalism of having a "major impact on our education system", with issues such as Scotland's role in the transatlantic slave trade being left out.

Even my own Scottish Higher Education institution, the internationally renowned University of St Andrews, was publicly criticised as being anti-Scottish by an SNP "grandee" when the student newspaper which I ran published an article lightly mocking Nicola Sturgeon.

It is no wonder, therefore, that among the 16-24 cohort the support for independence is far stronger than the older cohorts, where there is no taste for it at all.

Unionists face an uphill struggle opposing what many perceive to be indoctrination in schools. Especially when the party that advocates most strongly for the union in Scotland is widely seen by the young as both out of touch and maintaining unforgivable links to the Conservative Party in Westminster. It is notable that Douglas Ross refused to back a candidate in the Leadership Election after having called for Boris Johnson to resign, but there is only so much that he can do whilst he dons a blue kilt, so to speak.

There is little hope for a reverse to devolution soon, and wishing so is futile. The "once in a generation" argument favoured by the Government becomes weaker year on year. History is a series of steady centralisations and collapses, and the current global trend is towards things, as Yeats said, falling apart. For those that support remaining a part of the United Kingdom in Scotland, there will be little emotive aid from London.

The case for Unionism must therefore come from within Scotland herself. Charismatic and respected voices must be heard making the case for the Union from within Caledonia's bounds if the independence debate is to fade into the nether. Most importantly, that voice must speak passionately to the hearts of Scotland's youth, and it must speak of their futures and to their very sense of selves.

Devolution has failed, and continues to fail, young people. In Scotland, a devolved healthcare system fails to benefit its users through economies of scale, and despite a proud educational and intellectual heritage, attainment gaps in Scottish schools continue to widen whilst levels of maths and science plummet. Young people deserve better.

Yet whilst the young are fed SNP spin throughout their education, the matter is unlikely to improve. Only a passionate defence of the Union will suffice for a resolution. Yet this voice of continuity must have a Scottish accent - it remains to be seen who will possess it.

Linden Grigg
Linden Grigg

Recent University of St Andrews English Lit graduate working in Westminster, with a fascination for politics, pub chats (get in touch), and ruffling feathers.

Link copied

The Fledger was born out of a deep-seated belief in the power of young voices. Get relevant views on topics you care about direct to your inbox each week.

Have an article in mind? The Fledger is open to voices from all backgrounds. Get in touch and give your words flight.

Write the Contrast
Two birds using typewriters