Thole is one of those words in Scots that have much more meat to them than their equivalent in English. The literal translation of thole into English is ‘endure’. Endure though carries none of the resignation tinged with deep frustration, helplessness and put-upon injustice that thole expresses. Might one of the two Tory leadership hopefuls endear themselves to Scotland? Or at the very least create a relationship of mutual respect, rather than one of instinctive hostility and colonial hauteur?
Is there a new Tory leader Scotland can thole?
The answer is yes and no. No SNP or Scottish Green voter will care for any Conservative prime minister. For Labour and the LibDems the situation is almost the same, though both parties will quietly support any prime minister who not only shows enthusiasm for the Union, but who can also knock a few spots off the SNP.
If the UK feels short-changed by having its next prime minister chosen by 358 Tory MPs and perhaps up to 200,000 party members, have some sympathy for the Scots. Not since 1956 has the Conservative Party won a majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats. Today, it has just six MPs in Scotland. One of those six will soon hold power and influence out of all proportion to the Tory party’s Scottish strength. He – all six are men – will be the next Secretary of State for Scotland (SoS). Whether the new prime minister is Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss, Holyrood can expect stormy waters.
A clean skin at the Scottish Office
Who becomes SoS is in the gift of Sunak or Truss. Of the six Scottish Tory MPs, one is currently SoS and one previously held the post. The new boss is likely to opt for a clean skin. And of the remaining four, the most likely figure is the MP for West Aberdeen and Kincardine, Andrew Bowie.
Bowie has backed Sunak. Writing recently in The Times, he says of Sunak, “He knows that with their record in government we cannot trust the SNP to act in the best interests of the Scottish people”. To some, this will be read as a frontal attack on Scotland’s parliament and government. Others may see it as an assault on the country’s democracy.
Truss had, until the last round of MPs voting, won the support of only one Scottish Tory MP. Having spent part of early childhood at a primary school in Paisley, Truss describes herself as “a child of the Union”. Like Sunak, she is opposed to a second referendum on Scottish independence. As a one-time Remainer who has become the standard bearer for the hard Brexit Right, she may find winning hearts and minds in Scotland a Herculean task.
Whether it’s Sunak or Truss, a fierce raising of the temperature between London and Edinburgh seems imminent.
The stakes could not be higher.
London can impose its will on Scotland
Attacks on the devolution settlement began almost as soon as Brexit had begun. The Internal Markets Act and the ‘Brexit Freedoms Bill’ are two pieces of legislation that give power to Westminster in vital areas of trade and regulation, while removing any right of say or veto from Edinburgh. Levelling Up funds were sent from London straight to Scottish local authorities. Holyrood was cut out from deciding where the money went and on what it was spent. There are dozens of other policy and spending areas where London, via the Secretary of State for Scotland, can impose its will on Scotland.
The Scottish Secretaryship and the Scottish Office were established in 1885. Their status and size were boosted after WW1, in response to the realisation that Scotland’s politics were more radical than any other part of the UK. From 1920 and for the next 90 years, London governments devolved power to the Scottish Secretary.
If not a perfect arrangement, it recognised Scotland’s importance to the Union and the UK economy. It kept the radical Left in check, greatly improved the administration of Scotland and allowed the country to often develop distinctly Scottish solutions. When in the 1970s and 1980s Scotland looked to be heading towards independence on the back of the North Sea oil boom, the answer was devolution. Since the Scottish parliament’s birth in 1990 successive London governments and Scottish Secretaries have rubbed along well enough with Edinburgh. Consent and cooperation were the watchwords.
With Boris Johnson’s government came a more muscular, less conciliatory, less cooperative approach. It was less about consent and more about reasserting Westminster’s sovereign authority. That is in direct conflict with the SNP’s understanding of sovereignty. It argues that Scotland’s sovereignty lies not in Westminster or Holyrood, but with the people of Scotland.
Union in the last chance saloon
The stage is set for what feels like the contemporary end game of the Scottish constitutional question. We are in for two years of battles over great matters of constitution and law as well as policy and spending. All with brutal streetfighter politics.
The personality of the new British PM will matter. Sunak and Nicola Sturgeon will be well matched. Truss and Sturgeon should be a slam-dunk win for the Scot. Power though can change people profoundly. Truss may find her wings. Truss or Sunak, in the background will be the Secretary of State for Scotland, explaining, pushing, cajoling, urging. Scots Tories and their media friends know that the Union is in the last chance saloon.
It all comes down to the next general election
The set-piece battles and skirmishes of the next 24 months will end with the 2024 general election. In Scotland, it will be a single-issue campaign (a referendum before then is unlikely).
If the Yes to Independence side wins 50%+1 of the popular vote it will claim a mandate for independence.
If it wins 45+ of the 59 Westminster seats that will be seen as gilt on the lily.
If the popular vote threshold is missed, the victory will go to Westminster. It will then be up to whichever party or coalition rules there to mend a broken Scotland.
When the new prime minister takes office on 5 September the first words he or she says about Scotland and the Union may not tell us the new government’s strategy for preserving it. Nevertheless, it will assuredly give us a guide to its style and tone. Those things will define the political atmosphere and most probably the future of Scotland. And that will condition what Scotland will thole.
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