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Jim Hunter: By turning their backs on Scottish identity, Tories risk harming the union

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If Scotland becomes once more an independent country, something that recent polling suggests is increasingly likely, then any future study of how Scotland’s unionists lost out to nationalists may well make a bit of space for last week’s stooshie about beef.

Historian Jim Hunter.

The week began with a key Commons vote on a House of Lords amendment to the UK government’s Agriculture Bill. Backers of this amendment wanted to enshrine existing food standards in law. That would make it impossible, they pointed out, for post-Brexit Britain to be exposed to low-quality food products from overseas.

These products, say consumer groups, should be kept out on health grounds. Farmers, for their part, fear being undercut by cheaply-priced foodstuffs from countries with poorer animal welfare and crop production standards than those mandatory here.

But Boris Johnson’s Tory government was having none of this. Legal protection of current standards was ruled out and the Lords amendment to the Agriculture Bill duly voted down – to the undisguised fury of Scottish farming interests. ‘NFU Scotland and the vast majority of our members,’ runs a statement from the organisation representing most of the country’s farmers, ‘are bitterly disappointed that the amendment was not supported.’

Scottish Conservative leader and Moray MP Douglas Ross, as it happens, was one of the few Conservatives to have voted as the farming lobby wanted. But no other Tory MP from Scotland followed his lead – with the result that the Conservative Party in Scotland finds itself at odds not just with the Scottish NFU but with the wider agricultural community that, for ages, has been one of the party’s most loyal sources of support.

This might have been expected to result in some caution from Mr Ross and his colleagues when, days after the Agricultural Bill showdown at Westminster, it emerged that one of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s advisers, Kate Higgins, had been pressurising supermarkets to stop selling as ‘British’ steaks and other cuts of ‘Scotch Beef’ – an expensively created brand which, a bit like ‘Scotch Salmon’, has been of real help to Scotland’s food-producers.

But reaching out to farmers they’d just alienated, it appears, was of less consequence to Scotland’s Conservatives than seizing a chance to rubbish Holyrood’s SNP administration. ‘In the middle of a pandemic,’ declared Oliver Mundell who holds the Tory rural affairs brief in the Scottish Parliament, ‘it’s jaw-dropping that a key SNP government adviser is ferociously investigating how the union flag ended up on a packet of meat.’ Douglas Ross agreed – tweeting that beef labelling was in no way ‘the big issue facing Scotland today’.

Mr Ross is clearly right about that. But the line he took on the labelling fracas might yet be seen as historically significant – not because of its intrinsic importance, which isn’t great, but because of its being one of several pointers to a potentially far-reaching and very fundamental shift in the way Scotland’s Conservatives connect with what it is to be Scottish.

For decades, even centuries, Tories in Scotland set great store by Scottish distinctiveness. This, they insisted, was a very different country from the UK’s other component nations. Unlike Wales and Ireland, they maintained, Scotland had never been conquered by England. Its independence had been secured by kings like Robert Bruce and it was this that had eventually enabled Scotland to enter into a freely-agreed union with England – a union which guaranteed the continuing separateness and independence of Scots Law, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and much else.

This Tory commitment to a Scotland that, though in partnership with England, was entitled to express its own strong sense of itself is one that endured into recent times. In a just-published account of national policy on Gaelic, Edinburgh University academic Wilson McLeod notes that Malcolm Rifkind, when Secretary of State for Scotland in Margaret Thatcher’s government managed to secure from the Treasury an annual contribution of £8 million (£20 million at today’s prices) for Gaelic broadcasting. He had been ‘fighting behind the scenes,’ McLeod quotes Rifkind as saying, ‘to support a hugely important part of our history and culture’.

This sort of stance is worlds away from that adopted by Liz Smith, who leads on education for Conservatives at Holyrood, when earlier this year she described as ‘deeply troubling’ a move to enhance Gaelic educational provision in the Western Isles. It’s worlds away too from David Mundell MP’s declaration that ‘there is no border between Scotland and England’ or, for that matter, Douglas Ross’s contention that it’s wrong to be trying to ensure that Scotch Beef products carry saltires rather than union flags.

Many Scots Tories, it seems, have abandoned their party’s traditional stance and concluded that the union is best defended by decrying and disparaging everything and anything that might promote, safeguard or acknowledge Scotland’s sense of itself as a nation in its own right.

The trouble with this approach is that a Scottish identity undoubtedly exists and is, if anything, becoming stronger. By turning their backs on it, Conservatives risk making the SNP the sole defenders of those things that make Scotland Scottish. And that, from a pro-union perspective, doesn’t look terribly clever.

Jim Hunter is a historian, award-winning author and Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands