Finding Common Cause: Our Events

In February 2020, we at Our Scottish Future hit upon the great idea of holding a series of public meetings around Scotland to talk about the big questions facing the country’s future, where we would give local people a chance to meet face to face in the same room with one another.  

As Mike Tyson said, everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face – or hit by a global pandemic. 

But eighteen months on, we are delighted to say that we’re now planning to get things up and running again. 

Our inaugural event, entitled “Finding Common Cause” is taking place in Edinburgh on Saturday November 6th. You can get all the details and sign up here

Despite the intervention of the pandemic, our basic view of Scottish politics has not changed since we first came up with our plans. 

We believe that the debate on the union has too often been polarising. 

And while this is the preferred option of some, our polling shows that it ignores the views of “middle Scotland” – those thousands of us who would like to see a positive way forward for Scotland and the UK and aren’t wedded to some pre-determined constitutional formula.

Our events, starting in Edinburgh, are designed to provide a forum for those of us who want to act upon this idea, and themselves lead change, now. 

These meetings aren’t going to be for everybody. We haven’t bought any flags and we are fantastically uninterested in whatever the latest GERS numbers happen to be. Attendees can be assured we have no plans to explain what “sterlingisation” involves, not least because we’re not entirely sure ourselves.  

Instead we’d like to start our own conversation by talking about how to do politics in Scotland better.

Fundamentally, that’s by rejecting the notion that success is a defined by a win-at-all-costs battle to keep the Union together; by the politics of 50.1%.

Rather we want to champion the values of empathy, cooperation and solidarity and campaign for a more inclusive political culture that listens to, and learns from, the perspective that pro-independence supporters voters provide. 

We have some interesting and unusual guests coming along to provide their own perspective on all of this. 

And even if you’ve had no previous engagement with politics, that is no reason not to turn up.  

It’ll be a great opportunity to meet other interested and interesting people and to begin a more fruitful conversation about the way forward for Scotland. 

If you can’t join us in person, we will also be hosting a series of online events – please register your interest here. We look forward to seeing you in Edinburgh on the 6th, or at an event near you soon. 

Gordon Brown: “The Britain of Emma Raducanu Shows why Nationalists are Losing the Argument”

The public want to bang the door shut on a decade of division sewn by austerity, referendums and culture wars.

A new Britain is waiting to be born. It is economically progressive; egalitarian on race, religion, sex and gender;culturally centrist on law and order, defence and our history and traditions. It has a far stronger sense of place,  not only keen to celebrate our local as well as national identities but insistent that local communities be empowered with the control and the resources to make levelling-up a reality.

But this new post-austerity, post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain now needs to find its voice  and is desperately in need of modern  institutions,  reconstructed to reflect the values we hold dear.

It is impatient with culture wars.  The millions who condemned the booing of the English football team and protested the unjust vilification of Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho, were revealing overwhelming support for the more diverse and inclusive England that culture warriors hate. And when Gareth Southgate called for a less polarised country committed to eradicating racial and other inequalities, he was, as a new opinion survey published by Our Scottish Future confirms,  speaking for England. As many as 76 per cent agree that England‘s diversity as a country is important or very important to making them proud of being English. Eighty two per cent think that an equal voice for everyone irrespective of race, religion or gender is important or very important in making them proud to be English and 83 per cent think tolerance is important or very important in making them proud of being English.

It seems that, after 18 months of the pandemic, people want to bang the door shut on a decade of division sewn by austerity, referendums and culture wars. What is also   surfacing is a longing for belonging, not least for an England with a far stronger sense of place in which talking back control means making more decisions closer to home. For the first time since the 19th century, the distinctive voices of Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol, and Birmingham  and the regions are valued more than those of national politicians, and no one is now talking them down as “provincial”. This is wholly consistent with another strongly held sentiment: that Westminster and Whitehall should show more respect to people who, as another survey shows, feel  “neglected”, “forgotten”, “ignored” and patronised as second-class citizens. The polling is clear: people want to feel more invested in Britain but Britain must invest in them.

All this  has implications for the future of the United Kingdom. It challenges nationalists in Scotland and Wales who will now find it more difficult to claim that  Scots have little in common with the England of Southgate and Rashford. Indeed, it  contradicts their central argument for the break-up of Britain: that we cannot be  Scottish and British or Welsh and British at the same time. Most of us can feel comfortably at home with plural identities and found no difficulty waving the flags of St. Andrew, St. George and St David in June in support of Scottish, English and Welsh teams and then, come August, transitioning smoothly and naturally to supporting the Union Jack-waving GB Olympics and Paralympics teams Across England, Scotland and Wales, there are highly similar levels of support for saying equality, tolerance and diversity are important to making us proud of our country. There is the same level of support for the NHS, good jobs and climate change as the issues that matter. In their values and choice of priorities, Scotland and England and Wales are moving closer together, not further apart.  

For years we have been told that a more strongly-felt Englishness, Scottishness and Welshness would weaken Britishness and foreshadow the end of the Union. That is  wrong. Attempts by some Unionists to subsume Englishness, Scottishness  and Welshness in an all-consuming Britishness will not succeed. Diversity is not a threat, but a multinational state’s USP.  Unity does not require uniformity and solidarity does not demand the elimination of regional and national differences. To be British does not mean having one identity. Citizens can be comfortably Muslim, English and British. Only a minority now believe that the main characteristic of being British is that you were born in Britain. It is possible to be born in Canada of Romanian and Chinese  parents and be, like Emma Raducanu, a new British sporting icon. Within these islands, to rephrase Tennyson, all that we have met are a part of each of us.

That is why Boris Johnson’s “muscular unionism” simply plays into the hands of Nicola Sturgeon and her plans to provoke a constitutional crisis next year.  Describing the UK as “one nation”, he is abandoning the bigger idea – and better reality – that we are  a “family of nations”. He wants to badge new Scottish roads and bridges as British, as if hoisting more Union Jacks will make people decide they are only British and not also Scottish or Welsh. Once the champion of more powers for London, he now sees devolution outside London as “a disaster” and – ironically for an avowedly small-state Conservative Party – its Internal Market Act and Shared Prosperity Fund override devolution in favour of bolstering a centralised unitary state run out of London SW1. 

At a time when every country’s independence is now constrained by their interdependence, muscular unionism harks back to an unrealistic view of an  indivisible, unlimited sovereignty accountable to no-one but itself. It is a mirror image of the Scottish nationalist playbook, for they also have a one-dimensional and absolutist us-versus-them view of the world. You have to make a choice: Scottish or British – you cannot be both.

The mistake all narrow nationalists make is assuming the very same people who, like me, want more control of decisions closer to home have also decided they do not want to co-operate with their closest neighbours. But take the NHS: it is administered separately across four nations; but when asked what is “national” about the NHS, the designation most choose is “British”. Indeed, by five to one, Scots agree that vaccination shows the benefits of UK-wide cooperation.

Over 75 per cent want more cooperation, not less, and this sentiment appears rooted in a  basic solidarity and willingness to share. When an Englishman volunteers an organ donation – heart, liver or lung – he does not stipulate that his donation is to save English lives only. When a Welsh or Scottish woman gives blood she doesn’t demand an assurance it must not go to an English patient, but instead, to whoever is most in need, wherever in the UK. And we do feel the pain of others: when the people of  Manchester were hit by a terrorist attack and Plymouth by a mass shooting, the whole of the UK grieved together.  

Looking ahead, when we now have to address not just pandemics but the other challenges of the 2020s – climate change, financial instability and gross inequalities – are nationalists not now, for the first time in years, on the defensive? Is it not time to ask them why they don’t want to cooperate with neighbours who share their values, and ask who benefits when cooperation fails?

I believe that, as Covid and culture wars recede, the idea of a new Britain has more resonance and credibility than the talk of a new Britain in 1997. It will be a Britain whose unity evolves out of our diversity and is built on a shared belief in equal rights guaranteed to all, with personal responsibility the duty of all. The next step, upon which the Starmer constitutional review I chair is inviting evidence, is to reconstruct our institutions to reflect that better Britain and, not least in the light of our recent  Afghanistan nightmare, re-imagine our country as a force for good. The message is clear: seize the moment to build a new Britain – or risk losing it altogether.

This article originally appeared in The New Statesman under the title “The Britain of Emma Raducanu shows why nationalists are losing the argument”.


Poll Shows UK-Wide Shared Priorities and Values

Scotland, England, and Wales “Moving Closer Together not Further Apart”, says Brown
New Poll Shows That a “New Britain is Waiting to be Born” Based on Shared Priorities and Values
Governments of the UK Must Cooperate on NHS and Jobs Recovery

A new poll released by Our Scottish Future today reveals that the nations of the UK are united on the key priorities they want government to pursue after the pandemic, and by the values that underpin their sense of national pride.  

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the founder of the Our Scottish Future campaign, says today that the survey shows Britain is “moving closer together, not further apart”.

Writing in tomorrow’s New Statesman magazine, he says that a “new Britain is waiting to be born” based on the shared values and priorities that now exist across the whole UK as the country emerges from the division of Brexit and the trauma of the pandemic. 

He adds: “It is economically progressive; egalitarian on race, religion, sex and gender; culturally centrist on law and order, defence and our history and traditions and with a far stronger sense of place, not only keen to celebrate our local as well as national identities but insistent that local communities be empowered with the control and the resources to make levelling up a reality.” 

“But this new post-austerity, post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain now needs to find its voice and is desperately in need of modern institutions that reflect our values.” 

Our Scottish Future polled people across Scotland, England and Wales to ask them about their own values and their priorities for the coming years ahead. 

In Scotland, England and Wales, people are united in their belief that equality (78%, 76%, 78%), tolerance (83%, 83%, 83%), liberty (86%, 87%,83%), and diversity (82%, 82%, 80%) are important to making them proud of their nation. 

The poll also showed that people are across the three nations are largely agreed on controversial social questions around limits on immigration, the nature of British history, and the balance between equality and opportunity in society.

On priorities, people in all three nations said that making the NHS the best healthcare system in the world needed to be the clear top focus for government. 

Similarly, people across all the countries of the UK prioritised a dignified retirement for old people, fighting climate change, and making sure every child has the best education as other top priorities. 

Writing in this week’s New Statesman magazine, Mr Brown cites England football manager Gareth Southgate’s “Letter to England” earlier this summer, which highlighted the values of tolerance and equality. 

Mr Brown says the poll demonstrates that he was indeed speaking for the majority of people in England.

“As many as 76 % agree that England‘s diversity as a country is important or very important to making them proud of being English. 82% think that an equal voice for everyone irrespective of race, religion or gender is important or very important in making them proud to be English and 83% think tolerance is important or very important in making them proud of being English.”

This, he argues, has profound consequences for the debate on Scottish and Welsh independence. 

He argues: “Looking ahead, when we now have to address not just pandemics but the other challenges of the 2020s – climate change, financial instability and gross inequalities – are nationalists not now, for the first time in years, on the defensive? Is it not time to ask them why they don’t want to cooperate with neighbours who share their values and ask who benefits when cooperation fails?”  

Mr Brown is heading up a review of the Constitution for the Labour Party which is expected to recommend reforms to the UK state to encourage more cooperation.

He concludes: “I believe that as Covid and culture wars recede the idea of new Britain has more resonance and credibility than the talk of a new Britain in 1997. It will be a Britain whose unity evolves out of our diversity and is built on a shared belief in equal rights guaranteed to all with personal responsibility the duty of all. The next step, upon which the Starmer Constitutional Review I chair is inviting evidence, is to reconstruct our institutions to reflect that better Britain and, not least in the light of our recent Afghanistan nightmare, re-imagine our country as a force for good. The message is clear: seize the moment to build a new Britain – or risk losing it altogether.” 

Our Scottish Future has been set up to campaign for a more cooperative UK and is backing reforms of the Union to enable that to happen.   

In recent weeks, it has published papers on both the health recovery and the jobs recovery, urging the UK and Scottish Governments to work together on the post-pandemic response. 

Please see the details of our polling here

Data tables for the polls are here:




UK-Scottish Government Jobs Support Needed for 70,000 at Risk Young Scots​

The UK and Scottish Governments must work together to prevent as many as 70,000 young Scots falling into unemployment, a new report by Our Scottish Future declares today.  

Published a year on from the Scottish Government’s Young Persons Jobs Guarantee, the paper finds that ambitious plans by both governments to support 18-24 year olds into work are yet to have a major impact on the ground.

On the UK Government’s Kickstart programme – which was designed to create 250,000 paid work placements for young people across the UK – the paper finds that only 4,400 job starts have so far been created across Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s own Scottish Youth Guarantee – which was designed to ensure every 16-24 year-old was in work, education, training or volunteer work over the next two years – is pledging to create 24,000 ‘new and enhanced’ jobs and opportunities for young people but, as of June, had signed up only 45 employers to partner the scheme.

It welcomes the funding and action by both Governments but says poor implementation and a lack of coordination between the two is damaging their chances of success. 

Despite high numbers of vacancies, it is feared that young people are not getting into work because they lack the qualifications or skills to pick up available opportunities. 

The paper says the official figure of 41,000 unemployed under 25s in Scotland “significantly underplays the true scale of Scotland’s youth unemployment crisis” and warns the number will increase once furlough ends.

It argues: “In reality, we face perhaps a minimum of 50,000 unemployed young people across Scotland, with a further 10,000 economically inactive searching for work – bringing the total NEET (not in education, employment or training) to 60,000, with the potential to rise over 70,000 in the coming months.”   

It recommends that:   

  • Scottish Government should examine the feasibility of a Scottish Public Sector Guarantee for every under 25 year old without a job   
  • UK Government departments, Scottish Government and local authorities convene a joint taskforce to set out a shared plan of action   
  • Scottish Government and local authorities are given Kickstart funds directly to aid implementation   
  • Kickstart is extended to September 2022   
  • SMEs are given more incentives to hire young people on apprenticeships   
  • A long term overhaul of Scottish youth opportunities   

The paper is the first publication of the newly formed Our Scottish Future Economy Commission, chaired by Glasgow University’s Professor Ronnie MacDonald.   

Writing in the foreword to the paper, Professor MacDonald says: “As our report shows, various high profile Government policy initiatives – from Holyrood’s Youth Jobs Guarantee, to Westminster’s Kickstart programme – are not yet having the impact that was initially hoped for, nor acting with the urgency the crisis requires.”   

“The Governments in London and Edinburgh must now come together to plan an integrated approach so that young people are not left behind once again.”    

“Our report sets out recommendations on how to do so – centred around a genuine Youth Jobs Guarantee which does what it says: guarantees that every young person who wants to work gets to work this autumn. We also call for reform of longer-term employment support.” 

Existing data has already shown that young Scots are nearly twice as likely to have been furloughed over the last 15 months and are two and a half times as likely to work in sectors which have been hit hardest by the pandemic, such as hospitality and retail.

Today’s paper concludes:  “This political will is to be welcomed, as are the significant resources that have been allocated. However, the roll-out of job support programmes has not made sufficient inroads to tackle the scale of the crisis we face in Scotland. It is due to poorly designed policies, a lack of consultation with business and enterprise, administrative bureaucracy driving delays, and – above all – the absence of genuine coordination between UK and Scottish government.”

Our Scottish Future is a campaign set up to promote greater cooperation across the United Kingdom. It has set up four Commissions on the economy, the environment, poverty and healthcare to highlight the need for greater cooperation and to make recommendations on how to deliver a more coordinated approach.   

1. Figures on the UK Government’s KickStart programme are here: 

Written questions and answers – Written questions, answers and statements – UK Parliament 

2. This week’s Programme for Government committed to “continue to invest” in the Young Person’s Guarantee and aims to provide 24,000 “new and enhanced jobs, skills and training opportunities.” 

In response to the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, the Scottish Government has stated that “As of 1 June, there were 45 employers signed up to the Young Person’s Guarantee and we are continuing to engage with employers to encourage further sign up.” 

Pandemic Underlined Case For More Cooperation

The Covid pandemic revealed the need for closer and more formal links between the UK and Scottish Governments so that we are better prepared to face down emerging health threats, a report by Our Scottish Future says today. 

Based on interviews with senior figures in both the London and Edinburgh governments, the paper calls for the close working relations built up between Health Ministers during the pandemic to become a permanent feature as we prepare to combat health threats such as air pollution and bioterrorism. 

It also backs more joint working between the Westminster government and the Devolved Administrations to help reduce the huge hospital waiting lists which have been built up during the pandemic, and to support the efficient purchasing of PPE and new life-saving drugs.  

The report says the greater cooperation should be led by Number 10 and backs quarterly meetings with the Prime Minister and First Ministers of the UK. 

Writing the foreword to the report, Professor David Kerr said that while the delivery of the vaccine showed the country functioning at its best, there was also a “deficit of cooperation and coordination between the UK and Scottish Governments which only risked potential damage to our response to the disease.” 

He concludes: “The health professionals and experts we have already spoken to are clear: in the coming years, cooperation will be vital if the NHS is going to continue to meet demand, keep apace with medical advances, and do so efficiently.” 

“The NHS is our best loved and most trusted public institution. It is by working together cooperatively across the UK, that we can keep it that way and strive to provide health equity for all our citizens.” 

The report says that the pandemic represented the ultimate “stress test” for cooperation the UK and Scottish Governments. It notes that while joint working got off to a good start when the outbreak emerged last February, it collapsed in the summer when, amid a series of political rows, communications appear to have ceased entirely.

The paper says the “jury is out” on reforms to the UK state but welcomes fresh attempts to agree a plan for intergovernmental relations and the publication of new joint UK wide frameworks on public health and health security. 

In conclusion, authors Eddie Barnes and Evie Robertson write: 

“Ministers and officials from across the UK were faced with an unprecedented emergency in March 2020 and, at their best, they performed heroically in search of common solutions. This was exemplified by the way the various NHS agencies across the UK mobilised at speed to prepare for the first wave, and by the remarkable vaccine effort earlier this year, when genuine collaboration and cooperation supported a national effort to protect thousands of lives. At other moments, however, relatively minor differences in emphasis and presentation between key politicians across the UK led to a breakdown in effective engagement between the centre and the nations of the UK, potentially putting public safety at risk.” 

“Given the fact that the decisions taken by the four administrations were notable for their similarity and uniformity, this must be a cause for concern and for reflection by governments across the UK. If we are to learn the lessons of the pandemic, avoid political turf wars, and create a truly cooperative Union, then a more formalised working relationship between the UK Government and the Devolved Administrations should be mapped out with urgency. This will not just support better governance of the next health crisis to hit the UK but will also deliver better government across the United Kingdom in every area of public policy.” 

The full report can be found here. 

Our Recommendations 

1. Creation of Permanent, Formalised and Open Lines of Cooperation between Governments on Shared Health Challenges across the UK. When it comes to future pandemics, the continuing risk of Covid, of from other major health risks such as air pollution, bioterrorism and microbial resistance, we work best when we work together. We welcome the steps already being taken to formalise the ad hoc arrangements for collaboration and cooperation on health security and health emergencies and urge our Governments to work harder so that experts, Ministers and officials from across the UK are in regular and close contact on a standing basis. It should not require a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic for Ministers across the UK to form a working relationship with one another. New forums of cooperation should ensure that Governments from across the UK are able to hold strategic level discussions and develop policy in areas where they and the UK Government have a shared responsibility. This could – and should – extend to having a formalised steering committee, meeting regularly without fail, to develop joined up policy areas, and providing an arena where experts can be invited to collectively share knowledge and recommendations to not just Westminster, but regional governments as well. 

2. The new UK Health Security Agency should coordinate closely with the devolved administrations to examine how more joint working can protect the UK from health threats. Public health is devolved and should remain that way, but the experience of Covid shows that close collaboration between UK health agencies and their counterparts across the country is essential in coordinating a quick and effective response. The UK Health Security Agency should look to organisations such as the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and FEMA – and their interaction – for best practice on joint working and mobilisation to counter threats.  

3. A United Response across all Four Nations to Deal with the Aftermath of the Pandemic. We believe that there should be a united response across all four Nations to coordinate the response to dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic in terms of the massive backlog that has built up as resources were diverted, rationally, to deal with the extraordinary challenge of COVID. We saw great examples of cooperation between ambulance services North and South of the border, utilising spare capacity for the benefit of all. The UK became a world leader in managing hospital waiting times and we recommend that clinical networks are established to work in unison to use every scrap of capacity and respective resources we have to deal with our collective backlog. We define a Network as an often geographically disparate group, united by a common aim, one might argue, the underpinning ethos of our truly National Health Service.  

4. The Prime Minister should be at the centre of these changes. The draft Intergovernmental review proposes that he chairs one annual meeting with the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, and even suggests he could passed on to a “nominated deputy”. At a minimum, the Prime Minister should commit to quarterly meetings with the First Ministers.  

5. A review of Drug and PPE procurement processes across NHS England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in light of key learnings from the vaccine procurement plan, to consider where the UK can best leverage its ‘scale and buying power’ to bring efficiencies and value for money for taxpayers, whilst adhering to competition frameworks in place. 

Friendly Fire

UK Government Ministers can argue with some force that it is impossible to work with the SNP Government to improve the way the Union works given the Scottish Nationalists have no interest in doing so. But what about working with those calling for change who do want it to have a future? 

In the last week or so, more proposals for reform of the Union have been made by pro-Union voices. In a debate in the House of Lords, numerous peers set out the need for a better way of working (summarised by the Herald’s Michael Settle). The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, published an updated version of his 2019 plan “Reforming our Union”  on how to build a new culture of shared governance in the UK. Then the mayors of Manchester and the North of Tyne Combined Authority, Andy Burnham and Jamie Driscoll, addressed the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee where both argued that Whitehall continues to have a “blind spot” when it comes to dealing with England’s devolved regions. 

A common theme emerges around the need for the government of the Union to re-examine how it convenes and mediates the United Kingdom. Crossbench peer Lord Kerr urged the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “get round the table with your counterparts (in the devolved nations), settle the structures and make them work.” In its paper, the Welsh Government argued that the big issue thrown up by devolution now was about “how the UK as a whole should be governed, with proper account taken of the interests of all of its parts”. The Union was, it added “a joint project between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, based on a recognition of our mutual inter-dependence, which therefore requires a degree of shared governance.” Meanwhile in evidence to the Commons, Burnham talked about the lack of “machinery” or “architecture” within the UK state which made it difficult for him as Mayor of Manchester to work with London. Some departments were good, he noted; others not so but there are “no formal protocols” to help guide matters. This doesn’t just apply to his working relationship with London but with other devolved governments: hence the fact that he only got to hear about Nicola Sturgeon’s strange and peremptory ban on Scots visiting Manchester when he read about it in the Guardian a few Saturdays ago. 

In summary, the focus of concern among peers and politicians who are examining the state of the nation is less about the division of powers between the centre and the devolved nations and regions, and more about the failure to organise the relationship between the many layers of government which have evolved across the Union over the last two decades. Burnham went briefly through his reading of the history. The Thatcher government in the 80s, he argued, had weakened local government across England. The Labour government in the 90s and 2000s had then decided that Whitehall targets were the way to achieve results. Both had the effect of cementing power, control and authority in London while weakening it outside of the capital. Tory and Labour governments then introduced and expanded devolution in Scotland, England and Wales and, consequently, Whitehall’s command and control culture has run up against some increasingly assertive mayors and First Ministers who argue they are the ones in charge of their own territories, and think Whitehall is there to help them deliver their own mandates and priorities, not the other way around.  People can argue the toss about which one is right but ignoring the clash isn’t going to be an option. As Burnham noted: “The genie is out of the bottle, English devolution is out of the bottle.” 

A new agreement on intergovernmental relations is expected soon which is expected to tackle some of these matters. But the devolved leaders across the UK are now discussing far more radical issues, such as a new written constitution to try and codify matters and reform of the House of Lords. The Welsh Government argues that a new second chamber should have special responsibility for ensuring that devolved institutions are taken into account in the UK parliament. Burnham agreed, making the point that the current membership of the House of Lords is currently predominantly drawn from within the M25.  

None of this is particularly headline grabbing while a pandemic is on nor while football entrances the nation. And it can fairly be argued that governments have always got something better and more urgent to do than long-term reform. But the fact remains that the genie is indeed out of the bottle and, across England, Wales and Scotland, the genie is becoming increasingly noisy. For the Government in Whitehall, this friendly fire from pro-Union figures across the UK urging change and renewal is surely worth listening to. 

The Union Is Beginning to Think Through its Future

In the words of the Scottish academic Colin Kidd, academics and thinkers have tended to view the case for the union of the United Kingdom as an ‘intellectual dead-end’. Either the arguments in favour of the UK have been taken as so self-evident that nobody has felt it necessary to set them out – what Kidd has termed “banal Unionism”. Or it has fallen back on hackneyed cliches around empires built and battles won. With the SNP having forced Scottish nationalism into the political mainstream over the last few years, so the lack of a modern intellectual scaffolding on which to build a firm pro-Union argument has been exposed.  

Is this now changing? One of the more surprising and interesting developments since May’s Holyrood election is the extent to which most of the thinking and questioning about the future of Scotland and the UK is coming largely from the pro-Union side. This brief period of relative calm in Scotland’s relentless electoral calendar is being used to challenge assumptions and scrutinise principles; to kick the pro-UK tyres.

Take some of the evidence being given to committees in the Houses of Parliament in recent weeks by some prominent former civil servants and ministers in the UK administration who have had deep and first hand experience of the last twenty years of devolution. It’s a pity that the Scottish Parliament has so far found itself unable to hold such conversations because the insights that have been offered to the House of Commons and House of Lords in recent weeks have given a more mature assessment of the UK’s constitutional position than anything that has emerged from Holyrood in the last few years. Their evidence has focussed on the general question of how the UK Government faces the Union question and how it manages the newly devolved nation state.  There is too much to distil down into one short article, but some key issues are worth flagging up.

What do we actually mean by the union?

The House of Lords constitution committee is currently looking at the future governance of the UK. Last week it took evidence from two senior figures with immense governing experience, Philip Rycroft, the ex-Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union (and a current director of this think tank), and Ciaran Martin, a former chief executive of the National Cyber Security Service (both were also recently interviewed by Reform Scotland).

Martin raised what is a first principles issue. 

“There is an important question for British politicians in power and seeking power at a UK-wide level to think about what sort of union they are trying to preserve? There are two models – a multinational, diverse, multigovermental UK. Or a more assertively singular British states model of unionism.”

The latter, he noted, was a form of “Anglocentric British nationalism”. Both visions of the Union were valid, Martin noted, but in practice they are mutually incompatible. The problem is that, having created the former Union by introducing devolution, the British State largely carried on as if it hadn’t happened. Martin recalled the mood in the civil service in the late 90s after devolution was introduced. The country had just come out of recession, had tamed inflation and had got the public finances back under control. The view from Whitehall about devolution, Martin recalled, was “Whose crazy idea was this and how can we limit the damage?”

“If you contrast the pageantry of the official opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 with Her Majesty the Queen and Donald Dewar and all of that, with the obsession—and I would call it that—with just making sure that these new bodies were under control, the failure to engage with that debate about the emotional re-engineering of the union will not be looked favourably on, I think.”

Together with that institutional resistance, there developed a culture of what has become known as “devolve and forget”. Government departments weren’t incentivised to think creatively about the Union or to consider how sharing power or working with the devolved administrations might work.

Rycroft noted:

“The result of all of that was that devolution tended to be pushed to the periphery of departmental understanding, departmental management and departmental attention; that was both political and official. We made some progress over those seven years but, frankly, with the demands of Brexit and then of Covid, of course this has had to take bit of a back seat.”

Of course Brexit changed the entire dynamic and brought to the surface the conflict between the two definitions of the Union – with the more traditional version winning hands down. It has now left a question hanging in the air, as Rycroft put it.

“Do you seek to go down a road of collaboration and co-operation (with the devolved nations and regions) or do the UK Government seek to impose their view, whatever the thoughts of the devolved Governments?”

It is both easier for Whitehall and more politically palatable for the current UK Government to do the latter. Efforts to reform the Union are undermined, concluded Rycroft, by “the weakness of understanding in depth in Whitehall but I would say also in Westminster about devolution and the politics of the devolved parts of the UK, compounded in recent years by an unwillingness, a political failure, to accept the legitimacy of the voices of the other parts of the UK and to give them due accord in the important debates on the issues of the day.”

Martin quoted Robert Saunders of Queen Mary University.

“(He) said that the problem at the moment is that there is a risk that the Government’s approach to the union, their love for the union, if you like, is like the love for a possession, something one owns, rather than the love for a partner.”

Love for a partner, he added, requires you to “choose to act differently for the sake of the partnership”. 

What's needed is statecraft, not just structures

These parliamentary sessions come as Whitehall prepares to unveil a new agreement on intergovernmental relations with the devolved administrations. A 15-page draft has already been drawn up, codifying how the UK Government and the devolved administrations will relate to one another. The hope is that it will be signed off in the next few weeks. Everyone agrees this is clearly necessary and welcome but to assume that a guidebook on setting out the rules of engagement will provide the underpinning for the Union is a superficial reading of events. It is not just the lack of a document, but the lack of imagination that has led to the current impasse.

Rycroft told the Lords:

“When the history of this period, and I am talking about the last quarter of a century, is written and all of us around at the time have some responsibility for this, I think the sheer technocracy with which we responded to devolution will be seen as a weakness, a failure to grasp the extent of the cultural, emotional and national identity changes, particularly in Scotland.”

Martin concurred: 

“Something we might come on to—and I share responsibility for this—is the UK state’s approach to devolution since its inception a quarter of a century ago, which has been excessively technocratic and not thinking about the vision of the sort of United Kingdom we want to have.”

Questioning the pair, Lord Hennessy set out the matter too.

“I have always felt that funding formally, devo maxing, refreshing of structures and so on are absolutely critical too, but above all it is what General de Gaulle was alluding to in the first line of his memoirs when he wrote, “I always had a certain idea of France” and unless you have a certain idea of the union, really it is all lost.

What has been missing, said Martin, is a “thoughtfulness on the Union”.  Contrast the UK Government’s approach to the Union to the way, for example, the peace process was agreed in Northern Ireland by Conservative and Labour administrations in the mid-90s. 

Martin noted:

If you compare, for example, the statecraft that went into many, many years in extraordinarily difficult circumstances—over both Conservative and Labour Administrations—that led to the settlement in Northern Ireland in 1998, and you look at many of the papers that have been declassified, and you look at the profound thinking given to things like the statements in the Downing Street Declaration and the initial statement authorised by Mrs Thatcher about no selfish or strategic interests in Northern Ireland, that cut-through, that strategic emotionally sharp political statement followed through into action in terms of the agreement with the Irish Government in December 1993, it is hard to see that sort of strategic thinking incentivised in the Whitehall that I left.”

It is the lack of statecraft that “is most deficient” within government when it comes to the Union, he concluded.

It was a theme that was taken up in an earlier meeting of the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee by Andrew Dunlop, the Conservative peer who was the key advisor to David Cameron during the Independence Referendum. More recently, Dunlop has published a Review of Intergovernmental relations examining the relationship between the centre and the devolved nations. His main purpose, as he told the Committee, was to bring about the same culture change at the centre of power. 

“My main approach to intergovernmental relations is to change them from a very defensive activity where everybody puts on their hard hat, grins and bears it and tries to get through, minimising the chance of fallout. I want the whole atmosphere around intergovernmental relations to change, to make a much more proactive agenda that looks at where there are issues of common interest—and there are many—where the powers of the UK Government and the devolved Governments intersect, and it makes sense to work together, whether it comes to the productivity challenge, how to address climate change or tackling drug abuse. Those are all areas that would benefit from a common approach and working together.

“We can talk about structures, but my whole approach is that at the heart of this is how you change culture. There is no magic silver bullet for changing the culture in an organisation; it requires a whole series of things. My report was a series of interlocking measures to create the right package of incentives to change that culture. If you are to achieve that culture change, you need to look at it and take it forward as a package.”

So, what should be done?

There may be no magic bullets, but what are the ways to bring about this culture change? 

Dunlop’s Review set out a series of recommendations – a new UK Intergovernmental Council to improve relations between the various UK Governments; a joint fund to promote UK wide projects and collaborative working; a new great office of state, a First Secretary of State for Intergovernmental affairs; and reform of the civil service so promotion is dependent on knowledge of devolution. Some are being adopted by the UK Government, others – such as a new Cabinet Minister – are not.

In their evidence, Rycroft and Martin threw up some more reforms. The new package of measures on intergovernmental relations introduced by the UK Government might be put on a statutory footing, argued Rycroft. And there is the wider question of whether “muddling through” has run its course and the UK finally needs to write down its constitutional foundations.

Rycroft noted:

“There is a question as to whether the UK would ever be prepared to move into the space of a formal written constitution in the way that pretty much every other democracy in the world, as we know—bar New Zealand and Israel, to memory—has. We have never had that sort of foundational moment where that has been required. You could argue that muddling through—going back to the 1832 Reform Act and all major subsequent reforms since then—has sort of worked for the UK. I do wonder, however, whether we have reached the moment—with all the things we have been discussing today and also with the way in which the conventions that have hitherto propped up our constitutional arrangements have frayed or been seen to fray—to step back and to say, if not a full-blown written constitution, “There is more of this stuff that needs to be written down”.

He also raised the consent – what should happen when, in a devolved or an area of shared responsibility, a devolved government refuses to back a proposed reform (the obvious example being the implementation of Brexit)? Rycroft asked:

“Should there be a requirement, for example, if the UK Government wish to act in the teeth of opposition from the devolved Governments, for a second look, for a delay? 

“Short of an absolute veto on the part of any one Government, as in the Carwyn Jones proposal from the Welsh Government, should the UK Government need at least one other devolved Government on side to take a proposal through?

And, then, there is the question of England. Rycroft floated the idea of a Minister for England. 

“I think there is an argument to say about departments where self-evidently 99% of their business is English business, why not make those explicitly English departments? People may say, “Won’t that detract from the union as a whole?” I think clarifying where power lies and where responsibility lies will help people to understand the nature of the union as we have it now, post devolution. Whether there is a place for England in the structures of intergovernmental relations has been mentioned already. At the moment the UK Government wear both the UK hat and the English hat. That militates against coming to conclusions in that context where the UK Government can be seen to be operating for the whole of the UK.”

The value of deeper thinking

These are – as already discussed – largely technocratic answers to the debate around the future of the United Kingdom. But they are far from irrelevant. These dry debates about the nature of intergovernmental relations, joint ministerial committees, and dispute resolution mechanisms are better seen as the bureaucratic tip of the deep social and cultural questions that face this complex messy nation, and our own interest in its continued good health. Questions like – is this a nation which is prepared to expend energy, time and thinking power on the question of its continued existence? Or questions like – faced with the possibility of divorce, is this a country that wants to work at keeping together? For many the best answer – as with the West Lothian question – is not to ask such questions: after all, the Union works just about; don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good; be careful about opening a pandora’s box. But – post devolution, Brexit and Covid – this model of muddling-through-Unionism is being stretched to breaking point. And here is the rub. The case for Scottish independence isn’t rooted in the supposed practical benefits of secession – after more than a decade in office, neither Alex Salmond nor Nicola Sturgeon has found a convincing sales pitch which convinces a majority of Scots. Rather the case for independence is growing from a sense, repeated incessantly by the Nationalists, that the country is inevitably drifting apart and that there’s nobody, least of all Whitehall and Westminster, who is really given much thought to stopping it. It’s a model which sees independence happening by way of indifference.  

This is why the thinking on the Union emerging just now is so welcome and necessary. It is having an impact in the corridors of power. It also shows that, far from being an intellectual dead-ed, there are people across the UK engaged and focussed on the fundamental questions: why bother with a Union? What is it for? How can we make it better? Most of the intellectual heavy-lifting in the debate around the future of the UK is currently coming from those who would like it to have one. This is a cause for optimism. 

“Scotland in a Zoom” Project Published

Our Scottish Future has today published the findings of a ground-breaking new project that brought together scores of Yes and No voters from across Scotland.

“Scotland in a Zoom” encouraged voters on both sides of the constitutional debate to actively listen and positively engage with each other, before seeing where they could find consensus on a path forward for the country.

More than 80 voters from across Scotland took part in the virtual project in February and March this year, in groups of twelve over Zoom.

While participants disagreed on the big question of independence, the conversation events revealed widespread agreement across the constitutional divide.

As part of the session, Yes and No voters were grouped together to set out their priorities over the coming years. The sessions found: 

  • The vast majority of Yes and No supporters agreed investment in the economy, NHS and education were the top priorities for Scotland.
  • Investment in the NHS as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic was the top priority overall, agreed by two thirds of the groups.
  • Tackling climate change was also frequently cited, with a third of groups agreeing it should be a priority. 

In the events, equal numbers of Yes and No voters were placed into groups and asked to seek agreement on a constitutional path for Scotland.  

Though a majority did not want a second referendum under the timescale set by the SNP Government, there was widespread agreement that the constitution needed to be discussed over the coming 5 years, and that more opportunities to engage with each other would be beneficial. 

Our Scottish Future has set out a series of recommendations on the back of the report.

We are calling for politicians on all sides to find ways to allow the public to keep talking about the constitution – through Citizens Assemblies.

But key issues such as fixing the NHS, tackling climate change, giving young people hope for the future, and providing better quality housing cannot be put on hold, given people’s shared belief in action now.

It follows the call by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week for both the UK and Scottish Governments to do more to cooperate with one another on the key challenges Scotland faces, and on the constitution. 

Our Scottish Future project manager Eddie Barnes said: “Despite the apparent 50-50 division in political debate in Scotland, the project showed that voters from either side of the constitutional divide share many of the same values and hopes for the future – and, crucially, want those values and hopes to be better reflected in our politics.” 

“Participants appreciated the chance to hold a respectful conversation with people they disagree with on independence and the union. We believe the lesson for political leaders is to find more ways to bring people together to talk and listen to one another about these key issues.”

Scotland in a Zoom co-author Andrew Liddle said: “This report found a clear consensus among both Yes and No voters that Scotland must seek to avoid repeating the mistakes of Brexit when addressing its own constitutional future.”

“That means politicians better engaging with voters, but also being patient and not rushing into decisions that risk unnecessarily dividing Scotland.”

A copy of the full report can be found here.

It was compiled by Andrew Liddle, Eddie Barnes, Henry Stannard and Laurence Shorter.

Please see case studies of two participants who took part in the event. 

NO – Chelsea Rocks, 24, from West Dunbartonshire

I am not one of those people who goes around saying how much they love Britain. I just don’t think there is enough evidence that Scotland would be better off independent, and my view is – why would we do something that leaves us worse off? That said, I don’t blame Yes supporters for wanting change – especially when you see the deprivation and inequality around us. If you’ve only got £10 left, then you might well feel it’s worth the gamble – what have you got to lose?

The event provided us with a forum to talk. To begin with, some of the Yes people in the room had quite a lot of misconceptions about the No voters – I think they saw us as Unionist flag wavers. But once we battled past that, we were able to have a back-and-forth conversation and it turned out that there was a lot of agreement. When it comes to the economy, to the heath service, to education, the truth is that we all want the same things,  we just disagree about how we get there.

The format of the event really helped. Even when you’re talking to family members or you’re in the pub, if the subject of the constitution comes up, it can just descend into – well you’re wrong, and I’m right. Spending time looking at what we agree on opens you up to the idea that you might both be right and that leads to a much more mature conversation. It was also an opportunity to us to find out why people think independence is a good idea. You don’t get that in social media or in Holyrood or Westminster where all you get is politicians going back and forth at one another. We need more spend more time focussing on the things we agree on and then look at how we go from there.

YES – Gary Reilly, 38, from Edinburgh

For me, it comes down fundamentally to how we take the country forward. What we’re being offered by Westminster is a politics that’s sliding further to the right at every election. I would argue that this isn’t what Scotland actually votes for, it’s also not what Unionists in Scotland support either.

I thought the 2014 vote would have been enough of a scare for Westminster for them to equip the Scottish Parliament with genuine power but instead we got a bit of tax and tinkering with social security. I just don’t think Westminster is able to offer the kind of change people in Scotland want. 

Scottish politics can be a bit of an echo chamber so it was really nice to have a forum where you could speak to people of a different point of view. There’s also a lot of common ground – when somebody is talking about the NHS and the importance of healthcare, you don’t know whether they are Yes or No. I was paired with a lady who had real concerns about the impact of independence on the economy; she had a valid point. I don’t think it will be easy and there will be tough decisions to take.

One of the things I come away with as someone with a Yes perspective is that you have to stick to the basics. People want to know how they are going to pay for their weekly shopping, for their kids’ schooling and for their families. The basics really matter. Things like the currency arrangement – we need to have a common-sense position that people can understand.

On the referendum, a lot of the concern people had was on the timing of it. We should wait until we are through the worst of Covid. I do feel that we won’t be equipped fully for that until we are independent and have the full scope of powers that independence would bring.

Tactical Voting and the Scottish Green Party

Last week, we released the results of our ‘Morning After Poll’, detailing our view of what Scotland voted for and why.  We tried pretty hard to be neutral in our tone, and give each party and side of the constitutional debate a bit of food for thought before making any big claims about what people voted for.

One interesting fact that caught us when we looked through the detailed poll findings was that after all of the pre-election conversation of Alex Salmond’s gambit for SNP List votes, the party that had the most benefitted from SNP switching was the Scottish Greens, who won over 6x the number of SNP constituency votes on the list as the Alba party, with half of their voters saying ‘I voted to elect as many pro-Independence MSPs as possible’ (not ‘I voted for the party I most wanted to win seats’)

Whilst interesting, this was not particularly surprising. We have no particular knowledge of SNP or Green campaign strategy, but it seemed fairly clear during the debates that Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie were enjoying at least some sort of unspoken mutual non-aggression pact that led to the near-absurd end-point of Nicola Sturgeon’s kindergarten teacher-style ‘interrogation’ of Patrick Harvie  in the STV debate (‘so what you’re saying Patrick is that there is no way to build the Scotland you want without Independence?).  

Indeed, perhaps the most surprised person in Scotland about these findings is Patrick Harvie, whose intemperate pool quote on the issue ended ‘it makes no sense at all to highlight some SNP voters who aren’t convinced about independence, but then pretend without a shred of evidence that every Green voter is voting tactically on the constitution alone’. Leaving aside the logical and evidential flaw in his argument (it’s half of his vote, not all of them),  we thought it worth showing some more shreds of evidence beyond the report we published, in case he is interested in learning about why people vote for his party in Scotland.

Before we go into detail we should be clear – with only 80 Green voters in our poll (c.50 on a weighted basis), some of the cross-cuts we refer to here are low n, but hopefully show enough evidence volume of evidence for those declaiming the political purity of their vote to at least countenance that the Greens benefitted from some SNP/Pro-Indy voters lending them a hand up the D’Hondt ladder.

The Background: The Greens are a party with very little ‘core’ support

As was published in our report on Thursday, we asked voters the day after the election the question ‘In this election which party did you want to win the most seats’.  We thought this would be the best way of working out what the ‘true desire’ of Scottish voters was, excluding tactical voting or use of the list as a ‘second preference.  The results aligned fairly well against the actual regional vote share of all the parties, other than the Greens.

The implication of this is fairly clear – whilst the Greens clearly have a good brand and people who like them there are very few people in Scotland who wake up in the morning defining themselves as a ‘Scottish Green’ politically. 

The Evidence for Tactical Voting

In our analysis we stated that around 50% of the Scottish Greens’ vote was tactical in order to maximize Yes MSPs.  This was a result of the response to the question Which of the following was most important in your voting decision at this election for your peach regional list vote?, where around half indicated that they just wanted to elect as many Pro-Indy MSPs as possible (a number that grows for SNP to Green switchers) 

Uncovering the true intentions behind people’s voting patterns is notoriously difficult to do, not least because of how people post-rationalise their behaviour.  However, we have a number of triangulating points that imply that a substantial proportion of the Green vote on the list was from SNP supporters who are strongly in favour of Independence 

  • 73% of Scottish Green list votes came from voters who voted for the SNP with their first vote (and 10% from Labour voters), making them the only one of the five largest parties to rely predominantly on one other party’s votes for a majority of their regional vote
  • 68% of the Scottish Green regional vote wanted the SNP to win the most seats – again this is highly unusual vs all other parties.  90% of SNP regional voters wanted the SNP to win the most seats, a number that is 77% for Labour, 85% for the Tories
  • The Scottish Green regional vote was substantially more nationalist than their constituency vote – with 65% of their list voters being either 9 or 10/10 in favour of independence (slightly more than SNP voters…) vs 46% of their constituency voters.
  • Scottish Green list voters prioritise having a second referendum more than SNP list voters (with 31% having preparing for a 2nd referendum as a top 3 priority for the Scottish government vs 26% of SNP voters)
  • Although a low n so to be taken with a pinch of salt, we also see a huge amount of switching from voters who voted Greens in the constituency to the SNP on the list (c.78% of Green voters)

The Implications of Tactical Voting

With the assumption that c.50% of Scottish Green votes were tactical votes lent by SNP voters, a Scottish Green vote of 4% (vs the 8%) and an SNP vote of 44% (vs 40%) would have had the following implications for the Scottish Greens at a regional list level, losing 6 of their 8 seats, giving 2 seats (and a majority) to the SNP, 3 seats to Labour and a seat to the Tories

  • Losing their final list seat in Central Scotland to Labour
  • Retaining their seat in Glasgow (slipping from 4th to 7th)
  • Losing one of their two Lothian seats to the SNP
  • Losing their Highlands & Islands Seat to the Labour party
  • Losing their Mid Scotland & Fife Seat to the Labour party
  • Losing their North East Scotland Seat to the Tories
  • Losing their West of Scotland seat to the SNP

For the leadership team of Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, there is a happy coincidence between their position on independence and their own self-interest as politicians seeking election. The Green cake was baked with pro-independence ingredients – and the party cannot protest when people wish to point out that they are eating it. The question it leaves hanging is who in Scotland is best able to represent environmentalists who do not view Scotland’s constitutional question as among the most pressing issues around climate change.

Full data tables for our ‘Morning After Poll’ are available at:

Our Scottish Future’s “Morning After Poll” Reveals “Middle” Scotland

Our Scottish Future is today releasing the full findings of our exclusive “morning after poll” taken as Scotland voted in the election ten days ago.

The poll asked 1,000 Scots to set out why they voted as they did, what views they held on independence and another referendum, and what they want from the Scottish and UK Governments over the coming 5 years.

Key findings include:

  • A half of “Middle Scotland”, the voters who are open-minded about independence and the Union, backed the SNP – but they did so because they felt the party provided the best vision and leadership, not to get a referendum
  • In total, only 54% of SNP voters agreed we should start preparing for a referendum immediately, and one in five were either against independence or unsure.
  • Tactical voting for the Greens on the list by pro-independence supporters may have deprived the SNP of an overall majority. Had SNP constituency voters instead stuck with the SNP on the list, Nicola Sturgeon could have gained three more list seats.
  • Scotland is divided 50-50 on whether to have a referendum in this parliament, and support among many is conditional on whether the economy has recovered, and whether the options on both sides are clear.
  • Voters do not want the SNP to be “referee and captain” of the process, and they want the SNP to provide more facts about independence.
  • A majority of Scots think the best way for the pro-Union side to make its case is through cooperation, not confrontation with the Scottish Government.

The poll was carried out by Stack Data Strategy. 1,000 Scots were polled between the 7th and 8th of May 2021. Responses were weighted to census figures on age, gender, education level, and recorded 2021 vote in the Scottish Parliamentary elections’

Analysis of the poll is available here.

Writing in its introduction, authors Henry Stannard and Evie Robertson conclude:  

“There a third ‘Middle’ Scotland that neither conforms to a binary Pro-Union or Pro-Independence view of the world, but that is greater in size than either of the extremes in the constitutional debate. Citizens in this Middle Scotland are both primarily Scottish and meaningfully British.  They vote in their droves for the SNP not because they want a referendum, but because the SNP appear to offer good leadership and government within a devolved state.  They do not oppose a referendum in principle, but have deep concerns over its practicality that must be resolved.”

“We hope that politicians from both sides can start listening to them.”

Next week, Our Scottish Future will publish the results of a major consultation exercise carried out this winter and spring with Yes and No voters.

Entitled “Scotland in a Zoom”, it brought together Scots with different views on the constitution and sought to find out what they had in common and how they might agree on the next steps for Scotland and the constitution.

Our Scottish Future is a new campaign set up to advance the patriotic, progressive and positive case for Scotland as part of our wider family of UK nations. The campaign intends to speak up for “middle Scotland” – people who voted Yes, No, Leave and Remain – and who are now looking for something better than a binary choice between hardline nationalism and no-change Unionism.

Full data tables are available at: