Molly Pollock takes a deep dig into a journey into the unknown that The Union represents in this weekend’s big read
Politicians, commentators and posters have for years urged Unionists to make their positive case for the Union. However some of us came to the conclusion years, maybe decades ago that there is no such case to be made. Nevertheless we expect our Unionist friends to attempt to spin together crumbs to feed to the faithful, particularly when local elections are in the offing and an independence referendum is on the horizon.
The union for many of us in Scotland has grown increasingly amorphous, a structure we had tried to pin down previously but given up on. But given recent events thoughts have again turned in this direction. We need to prod it, question it, demand this union be defined, its supposed benefits, its shared values, for it seems clear that politicians as well as voters are unclear on exactly what Union our Unionists want to preserve, want Scotland to remain part of. Is this uncertainty why they too are having trouble defining it so merely resort to negativity?
The growing gap
Recently there has been much talk about the gap in political thinking and direction opening up between Scotland and England. Some years ago it might have been regarded as a fiction of Nationalist imagination, of people anxious to heap reason upon reason for independence. But this is certainly no longer the case. Boris Johnson’s right-wing government has scuttled ever more to the right towards isolation as Scotland has dug in to the centre left with a widespread desire to rejoin the EU.
So Unionists are in effect conniving to ensure Scotland remains hitched to an authoritarian kleptocracy. The England of the green and pleasant land, of good old British values, has lurched off into the sunset, and instead England has wrapped itself in a cloak of exceptionalism, within a bubble of superciliousness and arrogance, if the House of Commons and social media are anything to go by. The past has gone and cannot be revived. No amount of resuscitation will bring it back to life. So we either opt for a Westminster government as it now unfolds day by day, or as it threatens to be in the future. A chilling thought.
Change is brewing
If Scotland has changed since the referendums of 2014 and 2016, then so has England, where the signs are that further change is brewing in its cauldron, and not necessarily changes that will be brought about through the ballot box.
This may appear a fanciful remark, but the signs are that deep unrest is simmering, thickening with bile, beneath the surface of English society. This is having the effect of rendering some people more sympathetic to and understanding of aspirations in Scotland for independence. England is not a united country. The north feels deeply alienated from the south and from London, one of the reasons the so-called Red Wall seats voted Tory and for Brexit. They were desperate for change, whatever the cost.
Much of England feels ignored by London and the knowledge of London receiving the lion’s share of public finance for infrastructure and prestige projects rubs salt into the wounds of ordinary people struggling under Westminster government-imposed cuts. London and the South East will continue to do very nicely, most agree, but an overwhelming feeling comes across that the rest of Britain will continue to struggle, feeling ever more isolated from the seat of power.
‘All in this together’ cuts no ice. At one time suggestions were mooted that London should be floated offshore, that it should become a city state and leave the rest of the UK to get on with living, possibly under a federal system, unskewed by the City. Occasionally Scotland gets a mention, but the impression dribbling out is that most social media posters now expect Scotland to go its own way and good luck to it. We bottled it last time but the belief is that this time will be different, Brexit giving us the additional impetus.
Londongrad and Russian money and influence
Initially, an elected dictatorship was the favoured description of Boris Johnson’s government. Either that or it being described as a hopeless government propped up by a hopeless bunch of opportunists. Not a democracy, but a government run by a small but influential clique of Bullingdon Boys in hock to bankers and financiers and Russians with money. Now the rhetoric has become more blunt. A kleptocracy. Fascist. The murmurings are turning weightier.
London (now often referred to in this context as Londongrad) has been deemed the money laundering capital of the world. Whereas small countries like Latvia are taking legal steps, prosecuting people and freezing assets, there have been no prosecutions in the UK. Indeed the influx of Russian money and where it goes – a substantial amount straight into Tory party coffers, has been welcomed, as have those paying millions to be granted UK citizenship. According to Business Insider 14 ministers in Boris Johnson’s government and two MPs on the Intelligence & Security committee received donations from individuals and companies linked to Russia.
Because of his links to Moscow, the PM Boris Johnson was considered a serious security risk when Foreign Secretary. Brexit was about weakening the EU, not strengthening the UK. Brexit was about protecting the money flooding into London and those involved with it, and to ensure the UK could remain the laundromat for the dirty money of the world.
As well as money, Russia-linked donors were given access to senior ministers in exchange for cash. Why, unless to influence UK government policy? The close Russian links fuelled Tory determination for London to become Singapore on Thames whilst these connections, financial and political, to Moscow have earned notoriety around the world. In 2020, Johnson gave a peerage to Evgeny Lebedev, overruling officials to do so. Lebedev, who owns the London Evening Standard, which backed Johnson’s re-election campaign for London Mayor, is the son of a Russian oligarch and former KGB agent. He also owns The Independent and the TV channel London Live. Lebedev is now styled as “Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation”.
Whilst Putin flexed his muscles warnings came from the US that Russian money is now so entrenched in London and the City that retaliations against Putin would be severely compromised by the UK’s reliance on Russian money.
Johnson not the only one to blame
But it’s not just Johnson who has encouraged this flow of dirty money. As an article in the Byline Times says: “Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron welcomed the widening flow of Russian money and influence into the UK with open arms… In 2011, Cameron expanded the so-called ‘golden visa’ scheme, which allowed Russian oligarchs – and their money – to flood into London.”
Introduced by Labour in 2008, the tier 1 investor visa scheme allowed people with at least £2m in investment funds and a UK bank account to apply for residency rights, along with their family. For a £2m investment a visa took five years to acquire. A £10m investment shortened the waiting time to two years. Home secretary, Priti Patel, ended the scheme earlier this month to help reduce the flow of so-called dirty money. Over 12,500 golden visas are said to have been issued whilst those fleeing for their lives across the Channel from conflict have been deterred from entering the UK.
But, despite the ending of the golden visa and despite international condemnation over Russian money, it doesn’t look as if much will change on that front, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss insisting the Tories will keep Russia-linked donations totalling £1.93 million. These donations, collected from three individuals since Boris Johnson became party leader, have been ‘properly declared’ insists Truss.
In 2019, parliament’s Intelligence/Security Committee looked into Russian interference in the UK and its attempts to interfere in the 2016 EU Referendum. Johnson played down the threat, and delayed the report, tried to suppress it, then dismissed it as an attempt to delegitimise Brexit. When the Government finally permitted Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee to release its report it made clear that “the Government had not even bothered to investigate Putin’s attempts to interfere in British democracy.”
Stewart Hosie MP speaking for the Intelligence and Security Committee on the Russia report which was ready for publication several months previously but effectively suppressed by Johnson who failed to sign it off prior 2019 UK election. The report can be found here.
The signs have been there for years but too many were blinded by the take back control rhetoric of the Brexiters, the regaining sovereignty claptrap, and allowed control to fall into the waiting hands of Russian oligarchs. He who hold the purse strings…
Guy Verhofstadt MEP speaking in European Parliament.
This week the UK government announced sanctions against Russia. These were seen to be weak and minimalist, far short of what the EU and the US announced. Have the close links between Johnson, his government, the Tory Party, the City of London and Russia, resulted in their response to Russian aggression being fatally compromised?
Is this a union Scots want to remain thrilled to?
The party of law and order
Then there’s Partygate when Number 10 employees partied at numerous events whilst others obeyed the lockdown rules and laws of Johnson and his government and mourned the loss of loved ones without being able to say their goodbyes. Under such circumstances the lack of democratic accountability irks even more, becomes personal. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister and leader of the party that believes it stands for law and order, broke his own rules and allowed others in Number 10 to break them He will go down in history as the first British PM to be questioned under caution by the police. Yet Conservative MPs don’t bat an eyelid. Indeed they line up to support him in the House of Commons and TV studios.
Frustration and disillusion over Russian money and interference, Partygate, and the Covid 19 handling, as well as austerity and the rising cost of living, is spawning an appetite for a change of direction, the political system is increasingly regarded as failing England badly. But there is little expectation of any change happening in the near future, or suggestions on how it could be brought about. The Tories won’t vote for electoral change, nor will Labour or the LibDems. So detestation of government, anger, disillusion, depression even hopelessness and despair rule.
Some are blaming the first past the post electoral system for their woes, advocating that if anything is going to change the democratic deficit must be addressed. Brexit went ahead despite a minority backing it, and the English majority for it ensured Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain, was dragged out without any consideration as to the damage it would do. Is guilt, too, now lurking there amongst the electorate? An unacknowledged shame at being conned in the Brexit referendum by the very politicians many are now railing against?
Compare this with Scotland where we are test driving a number of PR systems which have brought about a radical shift in politics, an SNP government and councils, with the Labour Party having lost its hegemony in local government following the loss of its soul. Perhaps our systems aren’t perfect, but they do make an attempt to reflect the preferences and feelings of Scots. We have a government with ambition and vision, driven by the desire to see all those living in Scotland fulfill their potential and everyone living here can feel they have a part to play in it, a vote that is meaningful, engendering pride and hope for the future.
A positive case for the union?
So, back to the need for the Unionists to portray a positive case for the retention of the Union. The media haven’t devoted many column inches to it, nor has the BBC given discussion of the subject much airtime. Scotland long ago dismissed the Tories. The Lib Dems signed their own death warrant when they went into coalition with the Tories at Westminster. Labour has been immersed in digging a hole to Australia, or else is floundering, unable to portray itself as a party with any stance worth voting for. Certainly Labour fortunes have improved recently in opinion polls, though the feeling is that this is due more to Tory unpopularity than Labour approval. The likelihood of Labour in Scotland experiencing any kind of wondrous revival prior to a referendum is pretty close to zero.
Though Labour activists are still capable of making a nuisance of themselves with their twisted nonsense. But they, like the Tories are caught on a cleft stick, having severe doubts and concerns about the policies and personalities of their UK parties, voting one way at Westminster to keep their whips happy and the opposite way at Holyrood because they couldn’t possibly be seen supporting the SNP government or any of its policies.
The old avuncular Conservatism has long gone, replaced by a brutish ideology in which only those in power, their friends and well-connected matter. The social contract has been abandoned in favour of the me first and only doctrine where the more vulnerable are being treated as expendable.
A definition of the union
Divergence between Scotland and England is not a Nationalist fantasy but a fact. The chasms are obvious, and growing. Against this background a positive case for the Union is no longer enough, even in the unlikely event one could be unearthed. We must now demand from the Unionists a definition of the Union they wish Scotland to belong to.
Come our referendum, Scots need to be aware their choice is not just between independence and the Union as it was pre 2014 or even post 2016 in all its rosy nostalgia, the choice is now between independence and a union with a right-wing, Brexited, isolationist England with which we have even less in common.
The Unionists must be asked to define that new union and asked for a roadmap of where it might be headed.
It is now undoubtedly more of a leap of faith, a journey into the unknown, to contine with an England that is changing dramatically day by day than it is to opt to follow a well-trodden path of nations to the normality of independence.