Monday, 1 March 2021

Is there a case for the Union? 1: The Unionists' failure of understanding


Whilst Boris Johnson and his motley crew seem to be realising, albeit very belatedly, that they need to do something if the UK is to continue to exist, it seems that they are struggling to decide which strategy to adopt. Whilst some want to be aggressively anti-SNP, others think that Project Love might be more productive than Project Fear. The confusion looks set to run and run, with the likeliest outcome being two camps following two different strategies at the same time. They’re not really concerned about Wales at all, only Scotland (and that looks like a mistake in itself – the reason that they are in such a hole over what to do in Scotland is, at least in part, that they didn’t see any need to act sooner), but even there, they seem to be starting from an assumption that there are no fundamental problems with the way the union works, it’s just a question of finding the best marketing strategy. It is the very superficiality of that approach which dooms it to failure.

Some of the most successful marketing campaigns are those which attempt to sell Brand X instead of Brand Y, where the two products are basically very similar, and the demand is well established. Sadly, the political battle between Labour and the Tories in EnglandandWales has long been reduced to that sort of marketing exercise – two very similar products each trying to persuade customers that they are the best or cheapest. But reducing the choice to Brand X cornflakes or Brand Y cornflakes presupposes that the punters want to buy cornflakes in the first place. The problem that the unionists are facing is that most Scots have decided that they don’t want cornflakes, and aren’t even sure that they want any other type of cereal either. Trying to sell the merits of a particular brand of cornflakes to an audience which has gone off the whole concept of breakfast is an entirely different project, and probably an impossible one for people who can’t even imagine what the world might be like without breakfast.

Successful marketing requires an understanding of the mindset of the target audience, and the most successful businesses are those which, having understood their audience, adapt their product where necessary to suit the market rather than assuming that they can adapt the market to suit their product. And that, in a nutshell, is the biggest problem that the unionists face. So convinced are most of them that their product in its current form is indispensable to every household that they cannot even conceive of any way in which it might be improved. From their perspective, there is nothing in any way deficient about their product, and no need to change it. If people have stopped buying it, it’s because those people are wrong-headed and stupid. It’s easy to see how anyone starting from that viewpoint might believe that bullying, cajoling, or even bribing people into buying makes sense. But businesses which behave in that fashion invariably go bust, and there’s no reason to suppose the outcome for unionists will be any different.

The second big problem which they face is their own inability to distinguish between outcomes and structures. The union, as a structure, has value for its parts only to the extent that it delivers outcomes which could not be delivered without it. The suggestion is that ‘Project Love’ will concentrate on perceived successes, such as the vaccination programme and the furlough scheme. There are, in truth, problems with both, but let’s leave those problems aside and assume that these schemes can indeed be considered successes for the government. Whether they are also advantages of being in a union depends not on the degree of success achieved but on whether an equal degree of success could have been achieved had the UK already been dissolved into its constituent parts. Considered from that point of view, there is absolutely no demonstrable reason why Scotland, Wales, and England could not have individually achieved the same outcomes. (Whether they would have done so or not is a different question, to which the answer is unknowable, but it depends more on the competence of the governments elected than on the constitutional position of the countries concerned.) Claiming the successes, such as they are, of a particular government at a particular time to be successes of the constitutional structure under which it operates is a category error, pure and simple.

None of the above is intended to suggest that there is no case for the union. There is a case to be made, just as there is a case for independence, and people will have different opinions on the relative merits and strengths of those cases. It’s just not the same case that the unionists are making. A defensible case for the union isn’t about marketing and spin, or about misrepresenting apparent successes as being due to the union. I’ll return to what the case for the union might be in due course, but first it’s worth examining, over the coming days, some of the problems with the case usually being put forward.

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