Getting Rid of the BTP at All Costs

British Transport Police officers on duty in the London Underground. Image Credit:  Gordon Joly  via  Flickr   CC

British Transport Police officers on duty in the London Underground. Image Credit: Gordon Joly via Flickr CC

     This week in Scotland saw one of the more controversial aspects of the Smith Commission being brought up for discussion: the possible breakup of the British Transport Police, the specialist law enforcement force which is responsible for the policing of Britain’s railways.

     For those not familiar or needing a refresh, the Smith Commission was created in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum which saw the majority of Scots deciding to keep the United Kingdom together. In the closing days of the campaign, the three main pro-Union parties promised in the Daily Record (via the famous/infamous “Vow”) that with a “No” vote to separation, the devolved Scottish Parliament at Holyrood would receive more powers to exercise in Scotland, as opposed to the UK Parliament at Westminster (with Scottish representation as there always has been) exercising those powers in Scotland as part of the overall United Kingdom. With separation rejected, the commission was formed to recommend what should be devolved and among them was the Scottish BTP functions, and this was pushed through as part of the Scotland Act 2016.

    Even before the final passage of the act, the SNP government had made clear its intentions to use this new power to absorb the BTP in Scotland into Police Scotland, the single national police force created by the SNP in 2013 by amalgamating the eight existing regional services. In September, the merger proposal was officially announced as part of the SNP’s program for government, and last Wednesday saw various police representatives in a round-table discussion about the merger plan with MSP’s on the Justice Committee at Holyrood.

    Already, three railway unions and the BTP Federation had stated their opposition to the plan, with the federation expressing anger at the Smith Commission recommendation soon after it was made in 2014, saying that it was “both unjustified and unjustifiable.” Their main concern has been the potential loss of the BTP’s specialism and expertise, which make it unique from a force based in a particular geographic area, as well as the integrity of cross-border travel safety. For this reason, the BTP has offered to continue its services as a separate force in Scotland, but with oversight from Holyrood, rather than Westminster.

     However, the SNP government has continued to press forward with the scheme in the belief that since all other policing in Scotland is under the jurisdiction of Police Scotland, then the Transport Police should be the same way and that integration would “ensure the most efficient and effective delivery of all policing in Scotland.”

     The more generous remarks given on the subject in favor of the SNP’s position came from Police Scotland’s Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins, who said the merger could work and that his force could police all the railways despite this being “massively complicated” and admitting that there would be “massive transition issues.” His statement broadly echoes that of the Scottish Government saying that specialist skills of the BTP would be maintained and could be achieved “from within our national police service.”  He also gave assurances that staffing levels would be maintained and potentially supplemented by Police Scotland officers.

BTP badge from Dave Connor's Scottish Law Enforcement Insignia Collection. Image Credit:  Dave Connor  via  Flickr   CC

BTP badge from Dave Connor's Scottish Law Enforcement Insignia Collection. Image Credit: Dave Connor via Flickr CC

     Such assurances were not enough for Nigel Goodband, chairman of the BTP Federation, who said that some of the experienced specialist transport officers would rather quit their jobs than not be BTP officers and that therefore, neither the SNP government nor Police Scotland could promise that the quality of service and expertise would be maintained. Some of this attitude stems from controversies with regard to the formation of Police Scotland and its handling of policing, and in its submission to the Justice Committee, the BTP Federation regarded the force as “still very much in its infancy” and that “no evidence to date has been able to state clearly what, if any, advantage there would be in dismantling the current BTP model of policing in Scotland and integrating it within a geographical routine form of policing.”

     BTP Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock emphasized this point by stating that the BTP exists because its “specialism is so valued by the [rail] industry and passengers” and that railways required different policing from that of general law enforcement, which is specifically why it is difficult to merge into a geographic force (and why the federation is concerned about the possibility of transport officers being used to bolster Police Scotland). He was backed up by Nick Fyfe of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research, who pointed to a “distinctive culture and ethos in policing the railways.”

     This culture and ethos is what makes the BST unique and allows it to transcend borders to provide a consistent specialist service, and for that reason, the federation is also concerned about the annual 21 million cross-border passengers and whether there may be interruptions to the “seamless” level of service they have come to expect.

     This leads to something on a more fundamental level, which is that the British Transport Police is a service used and shared by rail travelers throughout Great Britain – a service which is visibly recognizable and the relatively the same wherever anyone goes, whether from Glasgow to London, or Cardiff to Manchester, or Birmingham to Edinburgh, so as to ensure that people get to their destinations safely. It is therefore representative something “British”, not only because of the name, but because of its mandate, jurisdiction, and service it provides throughout the island. The United Kingdom does not have a national police force, so the Transport Police is as close to such a force in the country.

     All of this of course, is anathema for the SNP. Its members, including at senior levels, deny that Britain is a country and seek to characterize it as just a “state” or "invented construct" run from (big, bad) Westminster without a heart or soul, little in connection to people in Scotland, and certainly not doing anything of value or significance for them. It therefore suits the SNP government to fold the Transport Police north of the Border into Police Scotland and to not only extinguish a piece of shared Britishness – the closest thing to a national police force – from the Scottish landscape, but to effectively kill it entirely throughout the whole country and have one less relevant institution linking it together.

     Despite evidence that merging the Scottish BTP into Police Scotland would be very complex (at a time when the national force is still coming to terms with its own formation), may result in the loss of specialist capabilities, and simply is not necessary for effective policing, the SNP seems content with pressing forward for the purpose of simply creating another difference between Scotland and the rest of Britain.

     This is but probably a taste of the “independence at any cost” posture taken by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when she claimed that separation “transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends.” However, these are important issues which must be considered and cannot be ignored if there is to be another referendum like the one in 2014, just as the complexities and warning with regard to the dismantling of the BTP and merging it into Police Scotland cannot be dismissed. As far as can be told, the BTP works as a specialist force policing the railways of Britain, but the SNP government is pursuing a strategy of making Scotland feel as though it's not part of Britain at any cost.

     During his remarks at the Justice Committee discussion, BTP Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock asked: “If it's not broken, what are we trying to fix?”

     That’s just it; there is nothing to fix.

A BTP helmet located at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City in remembrance of 9/11. Image Credit:  C.S. Imming  via  Wikimedia Commons   CC

A BTP helmet located at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City in remembrance of 9/11. Image Credit: C.S. Imming via Wikimedia Commons CC

Holyrood 2016: A Turning Point?

2016 Holyrood election Map, with detail of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Image Source: BBC

2016 Holyrood election Map, with detail of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Image Source: BBC

     Last Thurday’s Scottish Parliament election was one to remember for the fact that it turned out to be more interesting than projected. The seemingly unassailable SNP did win an unprecedented third term in power, but lost its vaunted majority from 2011 and found itself in the position of being in a minority government once again. Meanwhile, somewhat like Leicester City’s improbable victory of the Premier League championship, it was an evening of the three main pro-Union parties defying the odds and the going against the dire projections in store for them.

     The Liberal Democrats set the tone for the evening by not merely retaining the Orkney Islands, but having Liam McArthur winning it with a vastly increased majority. Here, the SNP vote share went down by 0.8% from 2011, while the LibDem’s managed a massive 31.6% increase to end up with 67.4% of the vote against the SNP’s 24.3% and majority of 4,534 votes. To the north in the Shetland Islands, the party again increased its majority to send former Scottish LibDem leader Tavish Scott back to Holyrood for a fourth term, and though the SNP managed to increase their vote share here, the Liberal Democrats increased it further to take home the same share as they done in Orkney.

     What was significant here is that Orkney and Shetland are represented as a single constituency at the UK Parliament and save for a fifteen year period from 1935 to 1950, have been sending Liberal and Liberal Democrat MP’s continuously since 1837, with the streak since 1950 being the longest run within any British parliamentary constituency and making it the safest seat for the LibDems.

     For Scottish parliamentary purposes, the islands were split into two constituencies which have elected Liberal Democrats since their creation in 1999, and these became the last LibDem bastions in Scotland after the near wipeout of 2011 when they lost all of their mainland constituencies to the SNP, partly in response to their role as coalition partners with the Conservatives at Westminster. At the 2015 UK general election, then-Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael held on to Orkney and Shetland with a reduced majority during the SNP landslide as he became the last Liberal Democrat MP in Scotland.

     After holding on to his seat, Carmichael faced an attempt to have him removed from office by four constituents in Orkney over the “Frenchgate” memo controversy during the general election when he stated that as Scottish Secretary in the coalition government of David Cameron, he knew nothing of a leaked memo which said that Nicola Sturgeon told the French ambassador that she actually preferred Cameron as prime minister as opposed to then-Labour leader Ed Miliband. When it turned out that Carmichael was involved in the leak and he admitted to it, the “Orkney four” lodged a petition for his removal and force a by-election. Carmichael was eventually found not to have committed an “illegal act” and he kept his seat, but there seemed to have been untold damage to his reputation and the electoral chances of his party in Orkney and Shetland.

     At least one of the constituencies (typically Orkney) had been projected as among those vulnerable to the SNP, but it seemed that the voters may have been turned off by what many people believed was a political witch-hunt to force out the last Scottish LibDem MP. In addition, there were no independent candidates in the running as there were in 2011 in both seats, and so the party romped home victories to keep them in the fold.

     However, if those victories could have been written off as Orkney and Shetland being Orkney and Shetland – voting for LibDems no matter what, the same could not be exactly said about the two big surprises for the party down south. In North East Fife, it pulled off an upset by electing Scottish party leader Willie Rennie with a majority of 3,465 – gaining it from the SNP and effectively turning around last year’s result at the UK general election where a similar seat long-held by former UK LibDem leader Sir Menzies Campbell was picked off by the advancing Nationalists.

     Further down in Edinburgh Western, the party regained this seat from the SNP with a majority of 2,960 votes under Alex Cole-Hamilton,  and this again was a reversal of last year’s result when the seat roughly contiguous to it at Westminster (Edinburgh West) fell to the SNP in the form of the now independent (and troubled) MP Michelle Thomson , who was suspended from the SNP last summer over dubious real estate and property dealings.

     In the end, the Liberal Democrats ended up with five seats in total with the inclusion of one regional list MSP from the North East, and so they have the same number of MSP’s from 2011, but keeping Orkney and Shetland, as well as gaining North East Fife and Edinburgh Western – fulfilling the pledge made by Rennie that he’d win seats from the SNP – was a victory and morale booster for a party that had been all but written off in Scotland.

     As for the Tories, they exceeded virtually everyone’s expectations in a big way. Sure, they had been rising in the polls and some projections showed them retaining their existing seats and perhaps gaining Eastwood, Dumfriesshire, and Edinburgh Pentlands. But it was still inconceivable that the Conservative Party – so often labeled as “toxic” in Scotland since being wiped out in 1997 – would make anything but modest gains and come in second place.

     Indeed, at the beginning of election day, the Tories themselves – at least privately and confidentially – were tamping down expectations and braced for the possibility of actually losing seats to the SNP. Then as the night progressed and the results flowed in, it became clear that the Tories were doing not just doing well, but very well, especially in areas where they had been the dominant party as recently as two decades ago and still have pockets of support at the local level.

     Their first victory of the night came in Eastwood, just to the southwest of Glasgow. This result was significant because Eastwood was once the safest Tory seat in Scotland at Westminster until Labour’s Jim Murphy won it in 1997 and Ken MacIntosh had held the seat at Holyrood for Labour since the first devolved election in 1999. Last year, Murphy lost the UK parliamentary seat – now known as East Renfrewshire – to the SNP and the Scottish parliamentary seat became a three-way marginal between Labour, the SNP, and the Conservatives. As such, it was one of the most-watched races this year, and in the end, Eastwood reverted back to Tories under longtime regional MSP Jackson Carlaw with a majority of 1,611.

The changes in support for the Conservatives from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. Almost all Constituencies had an increase in Tory Support, especially in the Northeast and Tayside against the SNP. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by  Stephen McGroarty

The changes in support for the Conservatives from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. Almost all Constituencies had an increase in Tory Support, especially in the Northeast and Tayside against the SNP. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by Stephen McGroarty

     Then the Tories managed to hold on to Ayr along the west coast under John Scott with a reduced majority of 750 between him the SNP candidate. To the southeast along the border with England, they won another three-way contest by capturing Dumfriesshire from Labour’s Elaine Murray, who had been the constituency MSP since first standing for it in 1999. This area forms part of the Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale constituency at Westminster which is represented by Conservative Scottish Secretary David Mundell, who had previously contested the Holyrood seat, and his son Oliver was the victor here with a majority of 1,230 to edge out the SNP’s Joan McAlpine.

     In Edinburgh Central, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson pulled off a huge upset by picking off the seat from the SNP with a very slim majority of 610. Another surprise was in store up north in Aberdeenshire West, where they flipped another seat from the SNP – with candidate Alexander Burnett surging ahead with a majority of 900. Back in the southwest, Galloway and West Dumfries was held by the party under Finlay Carson with a majority of 1,514 following the retirement of the sitting MSP Alex Fergusson. Following this, the Tories completed a sweep of the border constituencies by holding on to Ettrick, Roxborough, and Berwickshire under John Lamont with an increased majority of 7,736 and 55% of the vote. Altogether, it was their best constituency result in Scotland since 1992 (when they had eleven) and even the map from that year looks similar in terms of Tory blue on it.

     Throughout Scotland, the Tories made significant gains which failed to produce more constituencies MSP’s, but having increased their vote in almost every constituency, they were rewarded with a boat load of new parliamentarian’s courtesy of the regional list vote – 24 in all, and they came out on top in five of the eight electoral regions. This made for a combined total of 31 Conservative MSP’s, which is their highest-ever haul at Holyrood and placed them in second place – becoming the new “Official Opposition”.

     Meanwhile for the Labour Party, which had not only been the Official Opposition, but had been in power from 1999-2007, the results were very unfortunate, to say the least.

     Early in the night, by became all but clear that the party would lose its remaining Glasgow seats at Holyrood – having lost all of them at Westminster last year – to the SNP. Eventually, many of the other Labour seats fell to the SNP, with Eastwood being the exception, to the Tories. For that matter, the Tories came second in former Labour heartlands such as Clydesdale, and the party dropped to third place in these areas where they once could expect solid and predictable victories in any given year. The scale of the defeat resulted in the loss of several good Labour MSP’s whose experience and contributions will be missed.

     In the face of this however, there were some bright spots for the party. In East Lothian, former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray looked to be unseated as he defended a 151 vote majority against the SNP in a seat whose UK parliamentary equivalent had gone to the SNP last year. However, he managed to not only hang on, but actually grew his majority to 1,127 votes in the face of a Tory surge which may have come at the expense of the SNP and aided Gray along the way.

The changes in support for Labour from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. Only Labour's win in Edinburgh Southern produced a solid increase. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by  Stephen McGroarty

The changes in support for Labour from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. Only Labour's win in Edinburgh Southern produced a solid increase. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by Stephen McGroarty

     In contrast, Jackie Baillie barely held on to her Dumbarton constituency on the western side of the county with a greatly reduced majority of only 109, which may well have been aided Baillie’s defense of the workers at the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine base at Faslane (in her constituency). At the very least, this highlights the need to vote, for every vote counts.

     Meanwhile, Labour’s Daniel Johnson was able to gain Edinburgh Southern from the SNP with a majority of 1,123 and a good swing to Labour. It's perhaps fitting that Labour did well here given that it was the people of the UK parliamentary equivalent of this area (Edinburgh South) which had re-elected Ian Murray, the only remaining Labour MP in Scotland.

     With only these three constituencies, Labour (including its leader, Kezia Dugdale, who failed to gain the Edinburgh Eastern constituency from the SNP) depended on the regional list vote to give them a decent amount of MSP’s at Holyrood – 24 in all, which represents their smallest representation since the advent of devolution, and the third place finish was their worst electoral performance in Scotland since 1910.

     Of course, the SNP was still on top and remains in government for a third term, but without a majority as in 2011. This makes for a parliament that is more colorful, diverse, and representative of Scotland, as was intended when the voting system was put in place to prevent outright majorities of any party, so the SNP will be the largest of five minority parties at Holyrood. Even with the Greens at six seats to provide a nominal pro-secession majority with the SNP, there is no guarantee that the Greens will become lapdogs for the SNP, certainly not on all issues, and so there is every chance that the SNP may have to make deals with the (wicked) Tories – especially on taxes, where the two parties offered similar polices in their respective manifestos. Indeed, it would appear that the SNP’s broad church will be put to the test more than ever before, and combined with the new Conservative dynamic, we may also find out whether Scotland really is so vastly to the left of England that it necessitates the break-up of Britain, or if it is something which has a grain of truth, but is more likely a debating tactic used to manufacture grievances and advance the secessionist cause.

     Furthermore, in the face of the sheer numbers of the SNP, there were significant swings against them in several of the constituencies that have been won by them in recent years, as well as the ones that have been their heartlands since the 1980’s and 1990’s. Some of these places were once reliably Tory before the SNP displaced them, and the Tories have since tended to come in second place in most Westminster and Holyrood elections. They were also the places with tended to vote overwhelmingly against the SNP’s landmark policy of separation. At this election, there were huge swings to the Tories from the SNP in Perthshire, Banffshire, Angus, Morayshire, and Aberdeenshire.

The changes in support for the SNP from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. The biggest decreases came from the northeast and Tayside. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by  Stephen McGroarty

The changes in support for the SNP from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. The biggest decreases came from the northeast and Tayside. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by Stephen McGroarty

     In Perthshire South and Kinross-shire, the seat held by SNP Cabinet minister Roseanna Cunningham, there was 9.5% swing from her party to the Conservatives; nearby in Angus South, the SNP’s Graeme Dey was re-elected with a reduced majority of 4,304 against a 12% Tory swing; up in Moray, the swing from the SNP to the Tories was a whopping 15% as Richard Lochhead, another Cabinet minister, hung on with a reduced majority of 2,875. Most significantly, though Deputy First Minister John Swinney was re-elected as well, he experienced a 12% swing to the Conservatives in his Perthshire North constituency, which left him with a majority that had been reduced from 10,353 to 3,336 against Murdo Fraser.

     Similar swings to the Tories were seen in other areas, such as Banffshire and Buchan Coast, Angus North and Mearns, Aberdeenshire East, and in the case of the aforementioned Aberdeenshire West, the Tory swing was big enough to wrest the seat from the SNP. Meanwhile there were swings to the Liberal Democrats in former strong areas such as Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, as well as Argyll and Bute.

     Some of this may have been the result of former Tories and Liberal Democrats returning to their old parties from the SNP, but other vote changes may also have been due to tactical voting, as Alex Massie observed when he noted how the LibDem vote fell in the Borders and Aberdeenshire, only to have it rise substantially elsewhere, such as in North East Fife and Edinburgh Western. Indeed, if some places had a stronger swing against the SNP or more voters switched tactically, the SNP would have lost several more seats, including Swinney’s and Cunningham’s.

     Overall, it was a decent result – possibly the best one in the circumstances – for those who support keeping the UK together.  In terms of total votes, the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, and Labour collectively received 52.4% of the popular constituency vote compared to the SNP’s 46.5%, or 1,194,343 votes against 1,059,9897 for the SNP. The three parties also out-polled the SNP on the regional list vote 47.2% to 41.7% (1,082,425>953,587), though with the Greens factored in, the pro-separation percentage rose to 48.3% and 1,104,103 votes. Even so, with the loss of six SNP seats (and the one belonging to the late Margo MacDonald as an independent), the number of pro-separation MSP’s fell from 72 to 69 – the same number of seats the SNP won five years ago – whilst the number pro-Union MSP’s rose from 57 to 60.

     It must be remembered going into this election, it had been thought to be a foregone conclusion that the SNP would not only keep its majority, but also extend it to greater proportions than what had been achieved in 2011. In terms of constituencies alone, some projections had Labour losing all of its seats and indeed, the SNP vote appeared so strong as to threaten a wipe-out everyone but themselves in all 73 constituencies – leaving the other parties clamoring for all regional list seats. If it were that bad, the only seats given the best chance of surviving such an SNP tsunami would have been Shetland for the LibDems and Ettrick, Roxborough, and Berwickshire for the Tories.

     As it was, this did not happen, and all three of the main pro-Union parties exceeded expectations through a mixture of SNP support perhaps peaking and cooling off, the rise of the Greens to take votes from the SNP, some tactical voting, and a great effort at old-fashioned dogged campaigning on the part of the Conservatives, Labour, the LibDems, and by pro-Union campaign organizations, who have all taken a beating over the last nine years of SNP dominance. Indeed, perhaps the best outcome of this election was the not only the break with absolute SNP domination, but that it also, as Brian Wilson observed, broke the “spell of Nationalist invincibility” and ought to take a second referendum “off the agenda since there is no plausible mandate for one.” Indeed, it may have been the thought of a second referendum which caused many voters to turn out against the SNP in the final weeks of the campaign.

The new constituency map is vastly more colorful than most projections had shown going into election day on May 5th. Image Source: BBC

The new constituency map is vastly more colorful than most projections had shown going into election day on May 5th. Image Source: BBC

     If over the term of this new “rainbow” parliament, the political battles can be shifted away from the constitution, there will be opportunities for the three parties to grasp for better results down the line. For Labour, it was down, but not out, and Wilson pointed to the Dumbarton result as showing the way forward with a “strong candidate and a good story to tell” on issues that matter to people, like jobs, public services, health, and education. For the LibDems, they can hold their heads high winning two constituencies against the odds and look forward to developing their own narrative for the future. As for the Tories, they have been perhaps detoxified at last, but should be careful to not get ahead of themselves. Much of their resurgence came at the expense of Labour, and if they intend on holding this support and gaining more in the future, they need to offer something to the voters beyond defense of the Union. As Wilson observed, they’ve already started with their stance on not raising income taxes when they are devolved in full to Holyrood next year, and this he believes, was their biggest selling point, “more even than the constitution.” As the SNP possibly finds it more difficult to ride the low tax and anti-austerity horses, and more generally, being all things to all Scots, there will be openings for all three parties to take as different factions of the SNP may become dissatisfied with the party as a whole. (No wonder they want to get on with their summer secessionist initiative.)  

     This election may have been a turning point, and in short, all three parties need to build on the current results, consolidate them, and work on unseating the SNP in other areas next time around, so that Scotland and the United Kingdom overall can move forward.

Still Together and the Path Forward

The "Aerial No" in Edinburgh just days before the referendum.

The "Aerial No" in Edinburgh just days before the referendum.

     Today would have been the day that Scotland became an independent country and when the United Kingdom would have been broken up.

     Thankfully, it is not. The people of Scotland saw through the dubious, dodgy, and threadbare claims of the separatist case pushed by the Yes campaign, led by Alex Salmond and the SNP. The people debated and argued throughout a two year long campaign in which all of the issues were discussed at length. During this campaign, there was almost constant media coverage of the campaign and the issues at stake; there were claims and counter-claims – in print, on television and radio, on various online platforms. Indeed, with all the back-and-forth going on between the positions and people on both sides, it’s a wonder that many of us didn’t lose our heads!

     It was an emotionally training and exhaustive campaign – the likes of which many of us had not ever witnessed – and the world watched to wonder if the United Kingdom was on the verge of dissolution. Indeed, as the campaign went into its final month, the Yes campaign caught up and it looked as though they might have had a shot at their prize.

     In the end, after all the speeches, rallies, leaflets, ads, marches, bean counting, pronouncements, and flag-waving, on September 18, 2014, the people voted decisively to maintain the United Kingdom and to preserve over 300 years of history, heritage, and relationships – economic, social, cultural, and political. The people said quite politely and in a fair and legal democratic referendum: “No, Thanks”.

     We should all be thankful for the result, for it spared Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom from unnecessary and untold upheaval on many fronts. A bullet was dodged and one of the greatest countries in the world was saved.

     However, there’s no denying that the SNP – far from being mortally wounded – has gone on to dizzying heights as a political party. Successfully capturing the 45% of Scots who voted Yes and trading on the popularity of their new leader Nicola Sturgeon, they won all but three of the 59 UK parliamentary seats in Scotland at the General Election in May 2015 – becoming the third biggest group in the House of Commons and in terms of its membership, the third biggest political party in the United Kingdom.

     Now, there appears to be little sign of them slackening in the opinion polls, and they are projected to win an unprecedented third term in government with another majority – thereby likely keeping the separation and constitutional issues at the forefront of politics in Scotland. Scores of voters who tended to vote for the three pro-Union parties have bolted to the SNP, and there are no indications that they are coming back soon.

     In the face of this, the SNP’s opposition is divided between those parties – Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats – with Labour and the LibDems at historic lows and the Tories seeing something of a small revival since their 1997 wipeout, but nothing in the way of providing the numbers and political muscle to provide a strong opposition by any single party.

     In the circumstances – especially with most polls still showing a majority or dead-heat on the independence question – some people such as columnist Alex Massie have come to the conclusion that Scotland has too many parties, and that if the vast majority of Yes voters are fueling the SNP’s rise to around 50% in the polls, then it stands that No voters need to have a party of their own – a single “Unionist Party.” They believe that the pro-Union/anti-Union split and a focus on constitutional arraignments are the new norm and that, in Massie’s words, “the great political realignment spawned by the referendum is not over yet”, and in this vein they believe that a Unionist Party must be formed out of a merger of the three main parties and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in order to give a proper voice to those who voted No, mount an effective opposition to the SNP, and “offer a plausible alternative to the SNP’s constitutional vision.” Given that the SNP is effectively (in practice, if not in rhetoric) a centrist party, a Scottish Unionist Party would run largely parallel to them and differ only on the national question. As Massie put it, the SNP and SUP would be “rather like Caledonian versions of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael [in the Republic of Ireland], parties sharing the same part of the political bandwidth, but ferociously opposed to one another.”

     In many ways, I must say that this is an enticing prospect. There is sound logic behind, and in theory, would very much help at providing an effective answer to the SNP. The problem is that theory is just that – theory – and there are three main problems with the creation of a Scottish Unionist Party.

     Firstly, how would it work in terms of political ideology outside of advocating for the Union? It may be easy to say that it would be a centrist party to appeal to most people, but realistically, how would it accommodate those members, activists, and voters from Labour, the Tories, the LibDem's, and UKIP? If you can't get the vast majority of those who voted No to back a Unionist Party because of differences over non-constitutional policies, then where will they go when their parties have been merged into it?

     Secondly, how would it work in relation to the House of Commons? Would the party vote with a whip unto itself or would left-wing MP’s be able to vote with Labour and right-wing MP’s with the Tories?

     Thirdly is the concern that a party whose raison d'être is “Unionism” will only entrench the referendum dividing lines and make for – and I say this with no disrespect – a Northern Ireland-type situation in which politics and society are perpetually focused on and organized around the constitutional issues. This “are you pro or anti UK/indy” dynamic plays into the SNP’s hands as elections become less about real policies and what is happening in the world.

     Of course, there once was a Unionist Party operating in Scotland, but that party (which lasted from 1912 to 1965) was basically the Conservative Party in Scotland and took the Conservative whip at Westminster before formally merging with the Conservatives in England and Wales; a new (serious) Unionist Party would have to capture the vast majority of those who voted No from across the political spectrum in the Labour, Tory, and LibDem traditions. However, it is hard to see that happening; it was tough enough keeping the Better Together campaign rolling as a competent operation staffed and fronted by people who were (and still are) opposed to each other on virtually every other issue save for the constitution.

     Now make no mistake: I am a head, heart, and soul supporter of the Union – economically, socially, culturally, and politically, and I dearly wish for the United Kingdom to survive as a country forever. However, I am simply not convinced that the creation of a new Unionist Party is the best way forward.

     Most post-referendum studies have shown that among No voters, only around a third did so primarily out of affection for the United Kingdom and being British; much of the rest did so out primarily out of concern for their personal economic interest and because the case for separation was not convincing, which perhaps explains why some them do not label themselves a “Unionists.” Their support for the Union is not – at least primarily – driven by sentiment and the sense of historical connection to the rest of the UK. As such, they are not the type of people who support the Union come what may and appeals to Britishness and waving the Union Flag may not be helpful among them; they are the people who said that they would have supported separation if they were £500 better off individually, and so their support must not be taken for granted.

     Many of them are primarily concerned about the economy and prospects for themselves and their families, and they were convinced in 2014 that they were better off within the United Kingdom. Who’s to say that at least some of them may not be convinced should another referendum be held – God forbid – within the next few years?

     At the very least, polling ought to be done to find out what kind of support a Scottish Unionist Party would have, and especially if the vast majority of people from all three main parties are willing to join and vote for it. Without that polling however, I am willing to bet that with all of the practical obstacles facing it, an SUP will not likely gain traction as an effective counter-weight to the SNP.

     Going forward, the best option in the long-term will be to support the existing Union parties, who need all the help they can get to recover themselves to respectable positions at all levels in Scotland, especially Holyrood. Indeed, as Holyrood obtains more powers over people’s lives, it will be incumbent upon each party oppose the SNP and offer viable alternatives to the people of Scotland, with a focus on making life better for people on issues such as education, policing, healthcare, welfare, transportation, housing, and – above all – the economy, and moving away from the constitutional issues as much as possible.

     We are already seeing some rumbles of dissatisfaction within the SNP ranks, with the recent announcement on tax policy - keeping the top rate of tax in line with the rest of the UK - being just one area causing some consternation in some sections of the party. To be true, there may not be enough dissatisfaction with the SNP in time for this upcoming election, but it’s there, and Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats need to be ready for those who may become disillusioned and are ready to give at least one of those parties an audience. This, I believe, is bound to happen as the SNP stays in power over a longer period of time with more powers over people’s everyday lives than any previous administration at Holyrood and perhaps find it difficult to please it's broad church of socialists, neo-liberals, progressives, environmentalists, fossil fuel promoters, free-marketers, free traders, social democrats, and hard-core nationalist's.

     However, this is not to say that the Union does not need defenders advocating on its behalf day in and day out, and that’s where campaign groups such as Scotland in Union (SIU) and United Against Separation (UAS) come into play.

     UAS first came about during the referendum and played a major role in it as the “Vote No” page, and like its current name suggests, it is against breaking up the UK and has played more of role in opposing the SNP and pointing out its many contradictions and duplicity on several issues, while SIU came about more out of the aftermath and division caused by the referendum, and is more about promoting a positive message about Scotland and its place as part of the UK, and is not necessarily as much of an “anti-SNP” organization. As such, they are genuinely complementary in various ways – UAS is bigger with more “Likes” on Facebook and has more of an activist edge; SIU has more of a mainstream media presence, and conducts research and polling on Scotland and the Union. Broadly they have the same goal, but with just a slightly different approach.

     Both of them are doing a good job with what they are doing, and last night, SIU held a special gathering to mark this day when Scotland and the UK as a whole dodged a bullet. Going forward, UAS and SIU need to continue on by promoting and supporting the UK, and the ideas that the UK is better for having Scotland and Scotland is better for being in the UK. Their success will be an end to the dominance of the SNP, as well as the reality that separation and nationalism are not good options for Scotland. The byproduct of this will be more Labour, Tory, and LibDem members in Holyrood and Westminster in a much hoped-for return to non-constitutionally aligned politics.

     At an individual level, more people among us need to get involved with UAS and SIU, and volunteer their time leafleting, manning stalls on the streets, knocking on doors, having conversations with people, hosting/holding events, being active online, and generally doing all they can to help spread the word about the Union and its benefits to Scotland, along with how the UK in general is made stronger with Scotland. Part of this should be to make a social and cultural case for the UK in tandem with the economic case, so that there can be an even stronger case against the SNP – one that talks about the UK as a whole and how Scotland makes it what it is because of its people and many other contributions.

     This is likely going to be a long-term effort which will require a lot of work and sacrifice. None of us wanted the referendum and all that has transpired since, but this is where we are, and we have to take this thing one day at a time. There will be progress and setbacks, but with time, I do believe that all of us can do something to make a difference in helping to keep the United Kingdom together in a positive, bold, and confident manner.