Both candidates in the Conservative leadership contest have a plan to save the union.
Liz Truss, now the favourite, will “ignore” SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and hope Scottish nationalist support fades away. Despite the fuss caused by this comment at a hustings on Monday, Truss was merely stating British government policy. Prime ministers are just not meant to say it out loud.
Rishi Sunak was not asked about the union, but afterwards his campaign team said: “Keeping the UK together means confronting the nationalists and beating them at the ballot box.”
Between these two broad positions – ignore or confront – a debate is now raging within unionism about tone, tactics and the structure of devolution.
However, there is another way to save the union that cuts through all this detail with one essentially neutral policy: electoral reform at Westminster.
Replacing first-past-the-post with proportional representation (PR) would halve the number of SNP MPs, leaving the party with 25 of Scotland’s 59 seats, based on the results of the 2019 general election. Sinn Féin would also lose half its seats and the DUP a quarter.
But the main advantage of PR is not knocking the nationalists down to size – it is knocking the Tories down to size, making it far harder for a party based almost entirely in England to keep securing outright majorities.
Putting half the seats in Scotland back into play for UK-wide parties would further remove the Scottish sense of having national governments imposed over their heads.
Based on the 2019 results, the Tories would still be the largest party under PR but would need the Liberal Democrats to form a government. Alternatively, Labour could reach a majority with the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Greens.
Electoral reform will not happen without Conservative or Labour backing. The Tories are too selfish to accede any power for the greater good but they can be dragged into it by expediency
Helpfully, the SNP is in favour of introducing PR at Westminster. Switching to the single transferable vote model of PR is a long-standing manifesto commitment.
Last year, the SNP joined an all-party group in Westminster to campaign for PR, backed by the Electoral Reform Society and Make Votes Matter, which describes itself as “the national movement for proportional representation”.
The SNP’s reasons for backing a policy that would undermine itself and its cause stem from a mix of hostility and indifference to Westminster, plus pride at the more progressive system at Holyrood. This pride can also be sensed in the larger Scottish movement for electoral reform, where constant references are made to the superior example of democracy under devolution.
In a 2019 speech, Sturgeon said: “The Scottish Parliament was always envisaged as a place where parties would have to seek compromise and consensus. The use of proportional representation in elections is the key reason for that. By contrast, the first past the post system used at Westminster is clearly unsuited to an age of multiparty politics.”
Electoral reform will not happen without Conservative or Labour backing. The Tories are too selfish to accede any power for the greater good but they can be dragged into it by expediency. In 2011, they held a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system, required by the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition. The referendum was lost.
There is a strong movement for PR within Labour, now ahead of the Tories in the polls. A motion for it at least year’s party conference was submitted by half of all constituency associations and had the support of 83 per cent of party members in a pre-conference survey. The motion was blocked by leader Keir Starmer because some trade unions were opposed, but that is changing rapidly. Since the conference, the UK’s two largest trade unions, Unite and Unison, have switched to backing PR.
MP Clive Lewis, a prominent figure in the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, said: “Something is shifting in Labour, and not just the usual pro-PR election loss blip, but a more fundamental recognition that the future we want will be plural.”
In June, the Liberal Democrats said their price for forming any coalition with Labour will be electoral reform without a referendum. AV, a limited form of PR, was a compromise to get the 2011 vote passed. Without the requirement for a referendum, the demand is for full PR.
The UK has to have a general election in two years. Current polls give the Liberal Democrats 30 seats, enough for a two-party coalition with Labour.
Although it is too early to count on this happening, it is certainly more likely than a second official Scottish independence referendum within the same period.
British politics would be transformed forever, with interesting extra effects in Northern Ireland. If the partial list system of PR used in Scotland and Wales were adopted nationwide, the Electoral Reform Society predicts unionists in the North would switch to Labour or Conservative, and Irish people in Britain could give a vote to Sinn Féin.