‘Muscle suit unionism’ is the worst of all worlds for Conservatives hoping to keep the UK together
Ifan Morgan Jones
Whatever you might think of Michael Gove, his announcement yesterday that he was effectively retiring from the UK Government was a blow for unionism.
Perhaps because he was himself Scottish, Michael Gove was the only one in the Boris Johnson administration that seemed to understand the best strategy for keeping the union together.
Unlike others in the Conservative party, he did not advocate a ‘muscular unionist’ approach of making a show of centralising powers and not caring what Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland thought about it.
Instead, he advocated at least giving the devolved nations the impression of caring what they thought, involving them in decision-making, and making them feel valued and part of the team.
There was nothing new about this approach. It was historically how the unionists have thought of and approached how the UK should be run.
The dominant form of British nationalism in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has been the ‘contributionist’ form which images the UK as a team of valued equals working towards a common goal.
‘Muscular unionism’ undermines that and all that the strong-arming involved is likely to achieve is to rip the UK apart by making voters in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland feel that they are not valued.
Despite Liz Truss’ time in Paisley as a child there is no indication that she, like Gove, understand what has made unionism work historically or what makes Scottish (or indeed Welsh) nationalism tick.
Her claim that she would simply “ignore” Nicola Sturgeon, the elected representative of the Scottish people, might player well with Tory members in SE England but couldn’t send a stronger signal that the devolved nations aren’t considered England’s equal.
As a result, she is already doing her bit to boost independence in Wales and Scotland – and she isn’t even in post yet.
Lord Frost meanwhile took things a step further, saying that Wales and Scotland shouldn’t even be treated like nations at all.
He was, at least, completely, if perhaps unintentionally, honest about what the nub of the issue was: “I urge people in England not to give in to the ‘let them go’ argument,” he said, “ because the break-up of the country would be a massive national humiliation”.
What is even worse about this strategy for the UK Government is that you can be virtually guaranteed that it will amount to threats and posturing but no action.
This has become a government of making big, bewildering announcements and then not following up on them.
These things won’t happen. Because they’re just as ambitious as they are bonkers, and there is nothing in the record of the UK Government over the past few years that suggests they are able to deliver even basic functions like providing people with passports.
The same is true of their grand attacks on Welsh and Scottish devolution. If those parliaments and governments thought they had the wherewithal to act on their threat, there may be some room to worry. But just as likely they will huff and puff and then not do anything.
As such, it may be best not to call this ‘muscular unionism’ at all. Because they would imply some kind of action, of force being applied.
We haven’t seen that. The UK Government keeps threatening to do terrible things to the Welsh and Scottish governments in particular. But they either don’t seem to know how, are too incompetent to pull it off, or just aren’t really bothered.
This is actually ‘muscle suit unionism’ – they flex and pose but without the force of actually doing anything.
But it’s the worst of all words for the future of the UK because it still involves all the political damage of annoying the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but without doing anything concrete to draw them into the union.
If the UK Government really wanted to secure the union, they would do the entire opposite – love bomb Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and shower them in investment while slowly and imperceptibly undermining the power of devolved administrations in whatever way they can.
This was a strategy they seemed to have come around to a few months ago.
But based on what she had said at the Conservative leadership hustings so far, Liz Truss seems to lack the Govian guile to pursue it.
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