Enfranchise expatriate Scots!

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications and is Author of ‘Lobbying: The Art of Political Persuasion’. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

If Swedes, Spaniards and Singaporeans are to be offered a vote in a future referendum on Scottish independence, why aren’t expatriate Scots?  

The failure of the SNP to achieve a majority in last month’s Holyrood elections has not stopped them from demanding a second independence referendum. Despite the Westminster government’s insistence that it would not accede to this demand any time soon, few doubt that there will be a second referendum at some stage in the not-too-distant future.  

Under the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998, constitutional issues are reserved to the Westminster Parliament. The Cameron administration allowed the SNP Scottish government to dictate the terms of the 2014 referendum. They had three tactics. First, the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent nation’ was designed to produce the answer ‘Yes’. Second, 16- and 17-year-olds – who were reckoned to be strongly in favour of independence – were given the vote. Third, European Union nationals resident in Scotland were also enfranchised.  

Next time around the Westminster government must ensure that the odds aren’t  artificially stacked against the preservation of the Union. For a start, the question should be ‘Should Scotland remain a part of the United Kingdom?’ More importantly, the Westminster government should ensure that the Scottish government is not able to rig the franchise in favour of independence.  

Now that 16- and 17-years-olds have the vote in Scotland, it wouldn’t be practical (or fair) to take it away from them. However, the SNP government’s plans to give votes to any foreign nationals who happen to be resident in Scotland at the time of the referendum needs to be looked at very carefully. This bloc of voters could include people who are only there for a short time and for a very defined reason – such as overseas students or employees of multi-national companies posted to Scotland for a fixed period.  

If foreign nationals are to be allowed to vote in any future independence referendum, then surely Scots-born expatriates living in the rest of the UK – or overseas – should also be allowed to vote? Many expatriate Scots maintain close ties with friends and relatives in the land of their birth. Some Scottish members of the armed services are based in the rest of the UK or overseas but will ultimately return to Scotland. Some expat Scots have properties and other investments in Scotland, and intend to retire to Scotland. To disenfranchise these people is patently unjust.  

There is also the matter of fiscal engagement. Many expatriate Britons working abroad still pay taxes in the UK. All expatriate Scots working in England, Wales or Northern Ireland will be liable to pay UK taxes. And UK taxes have, since 1978, subsidised the Scottish economy, and the comparatively generous Scottish welfare system, through the Barnett Formula – to the tune of £1,630 per head per year.  

Therefore, to deprive those individuals who have paid UK taxes to sustain the redistribution of money north of the border of a vote in any future referendum wouldn’t stand. Whatever happened to ‘no taxation without representation’?  

I’m working with the campaign platform Democracy 3.0, which has kindly commissioned polling to help understand the opinion landscape around this important issue. Significantly, and despite the near total absence of any debate around the Scottish expatriate issue, nearly half those polled (45 per cent) supported our inclusive approach, while one in three (33 per cent) opposed it. SNP voters particularly appreciate the importance of giving Scots outside Scotland a say, with almost six in ten, 59 per cent, saying they would support it.  

If you would like to support this campaign and sign the petition, click here.  

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This piece was written for our website.

What happens next: The battle for Britain

GUEST POST: Katie Frank is a Consultant at Portland Communications. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

We have been living through a constitutional cold war, with a political stalemate between Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon over an independence referendum.

But as Bute House and Downing Street wait on tenterhooks for the results of the Scottish Parliament election, attention now turns to the key question of the election: will there be a mandate for a second independence referendum in Scotland?

The stakes could not be higher. For Boris Johnson, the battle for Britain as a Union of nations still hangs in the balance. For Nicola Sturgeon, this is an unmissable – perhaps her last – opportunity to be the First Minister to lead Scotland to a referendum, and independence.

Two Prime Ministers have refused to hold a referendum in the past seven years. First Theresa May and then Boris Johnson batted back any proposals for a second independence referendum.

But this election could change the political dynamic.

While an SNP majority government in Scotland, or a significant vote for pro-independence parties in this election, is not synonymous with support for a second referendum, it would make the case against holding a second referendum increasingly more difficult for the Unionists to make.

Since 2014, polling shows support for independence steady – even increasing in the last year. Something the Nationalists will seek to capitalise on is a majority in this election which will be seen as a mandate for a referendum. They view this moment as an unmissable – almost ‘now or never’ moment – to pursue independence.

For Unionists, they know they need to deny the Nationalists a majority. They also know they need to play for time – staving off a referendum until a rear-guard action can be mounted to counter the pro-independence surge in public opinion.

Boris Johnson must be both bold and cautious.

He must be cautious on a referendum – standing his ground without martyring the Nationalist cause and avoid prompting them to pursue the issue through the courts or a consultative ‘wildcat’ referendum that could cause significant political headaches. A difficult tightrope to walk.

He must be bold on reinvigorating the case for the Union and taking the fight to the SNP. The Nationalists may be setting this up as a question of democracy – who gets to decide Scotland’s future, Boris Johnson or the people of Scotland? – and that may be fruitful territory for boosting public support for a referendum, whatever your views on independence.

But as the election campaign has shown, the SNP still have huge questions to answer on the case for independence itself. This is the territory where Boris Johnson can win – and undermine support for a referendum.

That means a shift from the tactical safe ground that the Westminster leadership of the Conservatives have retreated to in recent times.

But the onus is not just on the Westminster leadership of the Conservatives.

The Scottish Conservatives also need to up their game significantly by finding a strong and charismatic leader in the Scottish Parliament who can inspire voters with a positive Unionist vision. At the moment, they are found wanting on that kind of leadership. With the new Ruth Davidson-approved candidates potentially winging their way to the Scottish Parliament shortly, it remains to be seen if a new talent can emerge and galvanise the Scottish Conservatives and Unionist cause.

It certainly looks likely that in the event of a SNP majority, and even a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, that the Scottish Government would seek to negotiate a Section 30 Order under the Scotland Act 1998 to hold another referendum at some point in the next Parliamentary term.

But irrespective of the size of a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, it does not change one simple fact: legally, it is crystal clear that it is the UK Government that can enable a referendum to happen.

There are, of course, alternatives to a mutually-agreed referendum. The Scottish Government, for example, may seek to legislate unilaterally for a consultative referendum. But they know that is a risky road to travel down – the messy example of Catalonia looms large in Nationalists’ minds and any legislation is likely to be challenged in the courts by the UK Government. It is far from certain that the Scottish Government would win such a challenge.

Therein lies the predicament for the Nationalists. For all that they may claim a mandate and have options on the table – there is only one route to a credible, internationally-recognised results on self-determination and that is a referendum agreed upon by the UK Government.

The UK Government knows the strength of their position. For all that this election may strengthen the Nationalists’ hand, it is Boris Johnson that still possesses the trump card. How he plays it could come to define his premiership.

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This piece was written for Portland’s newsletter Inside Holyrood 2021Subscribe here.

Scottish Tories need to save their campaign to save the Union

GUEST POST: Katie Frank is a Consultant at Portland Communications. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Over 700 years have passed since the Scottish Wars of Independence. While ballots, not battles, is now how Scotland decides its future, one thing is for certain: nothing, not even a pandemic, can shake the insatiable appetite Scotland has to debate one topic. Independence.

Since the referendum in September 2014, the Scottish Conservatives have been beating the drum for Unionism, with one key message: ‘No, to another divisive independence referendum’.

In the elections of 2016 and 2017, the Conservatives pounded the pavements with this simple message. It resulted in an electoral renaissance. Huge swathes of Scotland turned blue, some areas for the very first time. The Conservatives scalped major nationalist names in 2017, including Alex Salmond and the Westminster Leader Angus Robertson. SNP seats in their former heartland of North East Scotland were reduced to a small speck of yellow on the map surrounded by a sea of blue.

However, the election in 2019 saw this support wane. The loss of Ruth Davidson at the spearhead of the Unionist fight has been a damaging one for the Conservatives. Her successors, Jackson Carlaw, and now Douglas Ross, have seemingly failed to mobilise support for Unionism in the same way.

The Conservatives are the most electorally successful political party in the UK, and they are still the primary force for Unionism in Scotland – but they need to save their campaign if they are to resist the march of the nationalists and save the Union. With Scottish Labour hot on their heels, the Conservatives may accidentally hand the election, and the fate of the Union, to the nationalists unless they find the spark they had under Ruth Davidson.

Personality matters. This is something that No.10 and Edinburgh are painfully aware of.

The Conservative Party machine is undeniably an efficient and sometimes brutal one. Something Jackson Carlaw quickly learned. The Party machine has now started to kick into overdrive once more after a recent decline in the Scottish polls. Ruth Davidson, despite standing down, is featuring more prominently than Douglas Ross on much of the political literature and the Westminster rumour-mill is swirling with talk of potential plans for the Prime Minister to charge northwards to save the Union. These two big personalities could eclipse Douglas Ross in an effort to save the Union and the life of the Conservative and Unionist Party in Scotland.

Yet, personality is not everything. The Scottish Conservatives in the 2016 and 2017 elections were also not just the one-trick pony they now appear to be. They were strong on business, on education, on healthcare, and on the justice system. They seized effectively on the multiple policy failures that ran riot under the SNP’s leadership.

The recent internecine warfare in the nationalist movement between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond has damaged the post-Brexit uptick in support for independence and the reputation of the Government at Holyrood. But the Scottish Conservatives have not seized upon this opportunity or the numerous policy failures with the same vigour they would have done a mere 4 years ago.

The SNP’s PR machine is a slick one and the Scottish Labour Party have finally started to find their way out of the electoral wilderness. If the Scottish Conservatives do not revitalise their campaign and show a positive alternative future for Scotland, then they may entirely lose their place as the main party of opposition in Scotland.

Recent polls suggest that support for independence is teetering on a knife edge. But, the Scottish Conservatives must save their campaign and the life of the Party in Scotland, if they are to save the very Union itself.

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This piece was written for Portland’s newsletter Inside Holyrood 2021. Subscribe here.

Boris must find the bandwidth to take on Sturgeon

GUEST POST: Eliot Wilson is Co-Founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons ClerkFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Being prime minister is not an easy job. Whether you adopt the approach of Thatcher’s four-hours-a-night, or Macmillan’s retreating to Trollope novels at moments of extreme stress, it is a position which occupies your every waking (and probably many a sleeping) moment; the situation is not helped by the fact that the vast majority of prime ministers live ‘above the shop’ in the apartment complex of 10-11 Downing Street. Time to think can be at a premium.

Boris Johnson is certainly not short of challenges to which he could devote his brain power.

Covid and Brexit are the two most obvious and pressing matters, but one could easily add the “levelling-up” agenda, HS2, the grievous state of the hospitality industry, repayment of the national debt, the examination system in schools, NHS shortages and law and order, and that would be the in-tray only half full.

Being leader of the opposition is a very different matter. The effective levers in your hands are virtually none, especially when you face a government with a healthy parliamentary majority early in the electoral cycle, and if you are not to be wholly reactive (“We think the government should have gone further…”) then thinking is one of the few things to which you can devote a lot of time.

Just before Christmas, Sir Keir Starmer made a “major” speech on devolution and the Union. 

This is the sort of parlour game into which opposition leaders are forced; those who occupy the territory willingly are political oddballs and often Liberal Democrats. The content of the speech promised a commission to examine the devolution of power, advised by former prime minister Gordon Brown.

While this is not a move which will capture the imagination on voters’ doorsteps, it is a sensible and grown-up response to the persistent popularity of the SNP in Scotland and the inexplicable perception that the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has handled the Covid crisis well.

A recent poll showed support for Scotland’s secession from the Union at 58%, which would be a comfortable plurality at a referendum. 

This is literally an existential threat to the UK: from a business point of view, secession would mean the United Kingdom losing the human capital of 5.5 million people, access to the oil and gas reserves of the North Sea, an enormous potential source of tidal and wind energy and the huge financial services sector in Edinburgh, apart from anything else. It is by no means unrealistic to imagine an independent Scotland by 2030: the government must address this.

What must worry unionists is that Boris Johnson, personally and institutionally, simply does not have the bandwidth to take the fight to the nationalists at the present time. It is often suggested that Johnson, for all his mixed heritage an ineffably English figure, is ill-suited to woo a truculent Scottish electorate.

But if not him, then who? The Labour Party lost its relevance in Scottish politics with its Westminster annihilation in 2015, and its Holyrood leader, Richard Leonard, is the sort of man who is forgettable to his own memory foam mattress. The Liberal Democrats are a harmless fringe. Faute de mieux, the battle for the Union must be an SNP/ Conservative fight.

But who is going to stand in the front line? The Scottish secretary, Alister Jack, is a landowner who looks like a refugee from a late-stage Macmillan cabinet; Baroness Davidson (as she will become) is a proven vote-winner but is only standing in at Holyrood until next May; the Scottish leader, Douglas Ross, is accident-prone and yet to find an authentic voice which resonates with the electorate north of the border.

The prime minister needs help. He needs some heavyweight unionist figures (who need not necessarily be Conservatives); he needs an ultra-smooth and highly responsive media team; and he needs some enormous brains to sit in darkened rooms and find the arguments against secession which will strike a chord with the voters.

The second and third categories should not be impossible to satisfy. The first, the cheerleaders, may prove more difficult. If anyone has any ideas, the address is 10 Downing Street, London SW1A.

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This piece was written for City AM.

2021: A review

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, spoke to Matt Honeycombe-Foster at POLITICO about the future of the industry. The image below includes the comments that were used for his article, otherwise you’ll find the full transcript as a blog post.

Do you predict public affairs/comms industry will carry on with bits of the ‘new normal’ even as Covid comes under control?

Much of what’s taken place over the past nine months has been in the works for a while e.g., living healthier, working remotely, shopping online, leveraging technology and thinking digital.  

What’s happened is the pandemic has accelerated the rate at which governments, organisations and individuals alike were already adapting to new expectations.

You could argue that there’s been – apologies in advance to all PRs and journalists – a turning point, sea change or paradigm shift.  

Even now that we have vaccines, I doubt we’ll return to our old ways of working and living; a lot has happened. We’ve become accustomed to new habits and norms and become more resilient.

That aside, we’re a people industry – our successes are built on networking and relationships; we absolutely need that face-to-face time. That’s certainly true for new start-ups like do Different.

I cannot wait to be able to host in-person events for the PRCA Corporate Group and Conservatives in Communications again soon. Zoom fatigue has certainly crept in.

What were the big lessons of 2020 that are likely to stick?  

1) Trust in your people and partners and ignore all talk of presenteeism.

The key to making remote working work is for managers to trust their colleagues. In turn, all colleagues must deliver – at home and in the office. It’s really that simple. Get it right and the benefits can be a-plenty.

And, I believe people have got it right. They have risen to the challenges posed by the country’s response to the pandemic.  

2) Corporate reputation remains king.

While some functions in communications rise and fall in terms of where they are in the pecking order, corporate reputation management consistently remains among, if not at, the top of the league when it comes to what businesses should prioritise in terms of PR.

Yes, digital and internal communications played a critical role throughout the year – and will continue to do so into 2021 – however, it is reputation – the overall perception of an organisation that is held by is external and internal stakeholders (based on its past and current actions as well as its future behaviour) – where the bulk of investment should be targeted.

What are the main political and policy battles you’re watching out for in 2021?

If you thought 2020 was going to be a wild ride wait until 2021.  

The fight against coronavirus will continue, the impact of Brexit – either with or without a deal – will follow closely behind, the new US administration will push a whole different agenda, the Scottish, local and mayoral elections could be quite challenging for many, the Nationalists will continue to push for another independence referendum and all this while unemployment and debt soars.

Senior leaders need public affairs partners to help promote and defend their business interests, but also PR support to build their brands, earn trust, protect reputation and generate new leads. Advocacy and communications have never been more important. Thankfully, practitioners have demonstrated their value.

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Tories should fear Sir Keir – and figure how to beat him

GUEST POST: Peter Cardwell advised four Cabinet ministers in the May and Johnson administrations. He is the author of ‘The Secret Life of Special Advisers’, published on October 27. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

We’ve seen a lot of Keir Starmer this week: a Marr sit-down, a set-piece speech in lieu of a conference speech – in front of a handy physical red wall – and another strong performance at PMQs, understandably leading on test and trace. However, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Keir Starmer’s views. Would he back a future EU trade deal? Is he in favour of extending the transition period? Would he go for another Scottish independence referendum? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But, what I – as a Tory – do know is on a much more fundamental level he scares the living daylights out of me.   

His detoxification of the Labour brand is going just a bit too well. His new phrase “a new leadership” may be bland, however it is not meaningless. Because it is allowing Starmer, very effectively, to distance himself from the three greatest problems which dogged Corbyn: antisemitism, patriotism and security. 

On antisemitism, Starmer came down very hard on Rebecca Long-Bailey in June, sacking the former Shadow Education Secretary after she retweeted an article containing an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Helpfully for Starmer, John McDonnell stood in solidarity with her. Starmer looked decisive, leaderly and even gained praise from the Board of Deputies. 

On patriotism, can you honestly imagine Corbyn reacting to the “Rule, Britannia!” row with a strong defence of the “pomp and pageantry” as “a staple of British summer”? Thought not. 

And on security – Corbyn’s weakest issue – at PMQs three weeks ago Starmer reacted with genuine fury when Boris Johnson suggested Starmer was soft on terrorism because he had backed Corbyn. Starmer’s record as Director of Public Prosecutions speaks for itself, and Labour strategists plan to remind the public often of their leader’s key role in prosecuting the terrorists who planned the Heathrow bomb plot, ‘Britain’s 9/11’. And it’s no accident that Starmer returned to this theme in his leader’s address on Monday. There could hardly be a less Corbyn phrase than expressing a desire for: “security for our nation, our families and all of our communities… We love this country as you do.” 

In fairness, we Conservatives have had it good for so long when it comes to Opposition leaders.  Ed Miliband was a man who couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich effectively, never mind run a country. Jeremy Corbyn was popular with people who didn’t come out to vote and scared away many sensible people who did into voting Conservative. Along with Dominic Cummings and bearded Antipodean svengali Isaac Levido, Corbyn was one of we Conservatives’ three greatest assets in December’s election. 

And despite his lack of charisma, his slightly plodding manner and a front bench a little too full of unknowns, Starmer continues to subtly, slowly put clear red water between himself and his predecessor. This brand detoxification is the hugely important first step. 

So much so that CCHQ attacks on Starmer have been linking him to Corbyn, just as Republicans attack Joe Biden by linking him to the more toxic Hillary Clinton. That’s just not strong enough a strategy, and the Conservative operation will need to work harder. Starmer has certainly got me worried. And that’s why we Conservatives need to start planning how to beat him in 2024 right now. 

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for The Times.

Britishness is normal. Unionists should say so

GUEST POST: Fraser Raleigh is an Associate Director at Newington Communications and a former Conservative Special AdviserFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Westminster always wakes up late when it comes to the Union. The alarm is ringing on a constitutional nightmare if the SNP win a majority at next May’s elections to the Scottish parliament.

In 2014, it took a surprising 51-49 poll in favour of Yes just before the independence referendum to stop it sleepwalking into the break-up of the United Kingdom. Since then, Westminster has hit the snooze button time and time again.

In 2015, Scotland sent 56 separatist MPs to Westminster. Unionists sent three. In 2016, the two nations most comfortable in the Union – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU and the two most restive – Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted to remain.

Between 2017 and 2019, the UK government allowed itself to be propped up by the DUP, causing lasting distrust among nationalist and unaligned communities in Northern Ireland. And so in 2020 Britain left the EU with a deal that created a border in the Irish Sea, completing the full house by alienating unionists in Northern Ireland too.

But, with nine months to go before the election in Scotland, Westminster has finally wiped the sleep from its eyes. Just as well, because it will catapult the Union back to the fore of British politics.

The fightback starts with ministerial visits and lots of them. Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove have all been north of the border in recent weeks. The SNP insists that it welcomes the sight of more UK ministers in Scotland, arguing that it pushes wavering voters into the Yes column.

The government must call their bluff. The SNP’s greatest strategic achievement has been using devolution to cast Scotland as inherently separate to the rest of the UK, making independence not just a logical step but crucially a less daunting prospect for uncertain No voters.

While Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are pro-devolution, the SNP are not. Devolution has always been a stepping stone towards independence.

The Scottish government has projected itself as autonomous, developing its own foreign policy through ministerial visits to Brussels, cutting across reserved responsibilities and cultivating its own relationships with allies. For too long UK-wide institutions have played into that narrative: politicians, the civil service and the media.

If Westminster is serious about ensuring the United Kingdom is a coherent, relevant and tangible concept for Scottish voters it must grasp the scale of the challenge ahead of it and change the way it talks about the Union.

Ministers with remits spanning the UK have been too reluctant to project themselves equally across all four nations. The rest have outsourced issues with the “devolved nations” to the overstretched Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices. If ministers are to suddenly rediscover their interest in each nation, they need not just to normalise their visits but to normalise the way they talk about the UK. Clunky, transactional rhetoric about the value of the “precious Union” should be junked for matter-of-fact language that normalises Britishness, with the litmus test that if a minister would not say it in Dudley, they shouldn’t say it in Dundee.

The civil service in London has also been too timid about treading on toes, prioritising good working relationships with colleagues in Cardiff and Edinburgh above the central policy objective of preserving the Union, something our impartial civil service should never be indifferent about. Our cultural institutions have become balkanised, shunting Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish stories to the regional editions while leading UK-wide bulletins with English-only stories that mean little to voters in the rest of the UK.

Opportunities to counter the “otherness” of Westminster are missed by UK politicians, too. Of the dozens of new peers announced this year, only Ruth Davidson and Nigel Dodds were genuine unionist big hitters. No peerage for Carwyn Jones, who spent nearly ten years as first minister of Wales, or concern over Lord Darling’s retirement.

The United Kingdom has almost unrivalled cultural, political and diplomatic tools at its disposal to prevent the disintegration of its own state. It is time it woke-up to the value of those tools. Nationalists won’t be shy about using their own.

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This piece was written for The Times.