U.K.’s Tories Start War Gaming to Prevent Scottish Independence

Britain’s governing Conservatives are sketching out a strategy to counter rising support for Scottish independence.
U.K.’s Tories Start War Gaming to Prevent Scottish Independence
A demonstrator holds a Scottish national flag while marching during an All Under One Banner march for Scottish independence in Glasgow, Scotland on Jan. 11, 2020. (Photographer: Emily Macinnes/Bloomberg)

Britain’s governing Conservatives are sketching out a strategy to counter rising support for Scottish independence, with a memo circulated to a select group of people including Cabinet minister Michael Gove, according to people familiar with the discussions taking place.

The document from a political consultancy firm that works closely with the party looks at tactics to delay and then avoid a referendum in the event of a majority for the pro-independence Scottish National Party in next May’s elections, an outcome that looks increasingly likely.

Continuing to dismiss Scottish calls for another independence vote outright could be “counterproductive,” the memo said. Possible counter-measures include London handing more power to Edinburgh and ratifying a new settlement through a popular vote, and pressuring the European Union to nix the idea of Scotland rejoining the bloc as an independent country.

One person familiar with the communication said that a group was coming together to work on the issue. Gove’s office said it doesn’t comment on leaked documents. The study wasn’t commissioned by the government.

U.K.’s Tories Start War Gaming to Prevent Scottish Independence

With coronavirus infections soaring, a rebellion over lockdown measures and talks on a trade deal with the EU deadlocked, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his allies are battling on multiple fronts. But there’s also a growing sense of urgency over Scotland as a clear majority of voters now backs the breakup of the three-centuries-old U.K.

A poll published by Ipsos MORI last week put support for independence at 58%, the highest level ever, as the U.K.’s handling of the pandemic, economic fallout and Brexit play into the hands of the nationalists. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s government in Edinburgh has been calling for a fresh referendum, something Johnson has so far rejected.

Looming Crisis

The document, seen by Bloomberg News, sets out the uphill struggle the pro-U.K. cause faces after the pandemic boosted the standing of Sturgeon and damaged the popularity of Johnson and the Conservative Party.

U.K.’s Tories Start War Gaming to Prevent Scottish Independence

The 21-page memo was written by Hanbury, which was set up by Ameet Gill, former Prime Minister David Cameron’s one-time director of strategy, and Paul Stephenson, who was director of communications for pro-Brexit group Vote Leave. One of the firm’s partners is James Kanagasooriam, who worked with the Scottish Conservatives on elections in 2016 and 2017.

The report covers the state of play, voter and polling trends, a strategy for next year’s Scottish elections and what do to in the event of an SNP majority.

“If the SNP builds on this momentum then the endpoint could be a full-blown constitutional crisis or a second independence referendum,” the report said. “Either of these outcomes would consume significant political capital for the government.”

Hanbury declined to comment on the document.

The memo suggests the Tory campaign should focus on the SNP’s record in government, making the party “pay the price” for running the semi-autonomous administration since 2007. The strategy also argues that “a hard-hitting, attack-focused” campaign against Sturgeon could shift votes.

‘Co-Opting’ Europe

A second challenge will be developing a compelling offer to voters who support remaining in the U.K. but oppose leaving the European Union by putting forward policies in areas such as the environment and immigration.

In a 2014 independence referendum, Scotland voted 55% to 45% to stay in the U.K. after a last-minute promise of greater autonomy over areas such as finance and the economy. Yet every region of Scotland opposed Brexit in the U.K. vote on EU membership two years later.

One way of trying to break the link between independence and remaining in the single market is by “co-opting the EU into demonstrating that there is no viable pathway to renewed membership,” the report said.

Brexit has changed the game and makes the conventional argument against a rerun of the 2014 referendum -- that it was a “once in a generation” vote -- no longer effective, it said. “Put simply, there are not enough Leave voters to convert to the ‘No’ side to make up for the movement of Remain voters into the ‘Yes’ camp,” the report said.

Another challenge identified by the memo is a lack of key personnel among those on the “No” side of the independence debate. The authors claim there is “a vacuum of leadership within the Unionist movement which is leaving the campaign rudderless at a key moment.”

New Deal

The memo offers three steps the U.K. government could take to mitigate the pressure: “​New accommodation, new constitutional settlement, and cooperation rather than confrontation​.” It describes the first step as a “velvet no” that rejects a referendum in the short term and buys time.

The government should instead focus on a “Four Nations, One Country” policy by transferring further financial powers, differentiation on policies connected to the EU vote, such as immigration. The document says that the new settlement will be the subject of another paper.

One of the people familiar with the positions within the Conservatives told Bloomberg that there were contrasting voices within the party, with some saying there should be no referendum and no more ceding of powers.

Another option set out in the memo would be to prepare a new constitutional plan ready to roll out in case of an SNP victory in May. These measures could eventually be ratified via a referendum as a “placation” against the SNP’s demands for an independence vote, the document says.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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