What should the UK Government’s strategy be to stop Scottish independence? One would think this is the sort of thing Tory politicians and their staffers think about themselves. But no, in these days of neoliberal governance, Ministers seem happier to outsource all of their thinking to ridiculously expensive private consultancies.
Bloomberg has now reported on a leaked 21-page memo by Hansbury, a private consultancy of Ameet Gill, David Cameron’s former director of strategy, and Paul Stephenson, spin doctor for the Vote Leave campaign in 2016. It’s not actually been commissioned by the government, and there are reported to be competing views around Number 10 on how to address the Scotland question, but it’s at least some sort of insight into what the people who do the thinking on behalf of the UK Government think.
What does this memo say, then? First, that there is a real danger of a “full blown constitutional crisis” if current trends continue towards indy support and an SNP majority. Second, that they should focus on attacking the SNP’s record in government since 2007, and that a “hard-hitting, attack-focused” campaign against First Minister Nicola Sturgeon could be a vote winner. Third, to develop a new offer for a key constituency of voters who don’t really want to leave the UK but are angry about Brexit. As part of this, attempts should be made at “co-opting the EU into demonstrating that there is no viable pathway to renewed membership” for an independent Scotland.
Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, the memo argues that simply saying the 2014 referendum was “once in a generation” is not a line that is working anymore. In the aftermath of a likely SNP victory at the 2021 Scottish elections, Johnson’s flat No on indyref should be replaced with a “velvet No”; rejecting an independence referendum in the short-term, but offering a new constitutional settlement including on powers important to the Brexit question such as immigration, potentially ratified via a referendum. This would be a “placation” strategy.
None of this is particularly surprising stuff. A “velvet No” offer has always been part of the UK Government’s possible repertoire of options to contain the threat of independence. Hansbury are right that linking it specifically to policy areas connected to Brexit would make it an offer that is difficult for the SNP to turn down, since the party has focused relentlessly on the question of Brexit powers since 2016. But it does run up against what Johnson and Gove appear to have been trying to do for the past year, which is to demoralise the Yes side through making no concessions and build a more imposing, muscular unionism in Scotland. This memo could be a sign that the inner-circle are starting to have doubts that this strategy is working. It would not be out of character for Johnson to switch strategy at the first sign of difficulties.
How would the Yes side cope with a “velvet No” on indyref after the 2021 elections? This is where the importance of a grassroots movement comes in, to make it clear that nothing less than an independence referendum, with a straight yes v no question, is acceptable. If the independence movement looks like it can be divided on that question, it will be an opportunity which the Tories may choose to seize on when they feel that the ‘flat No’ approach has ran out of legs. Winning the right to another indyref was never going to be easy.
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