Robin Pettitt


Now that we have entered the next phase of Brexit (which is in no meaningful way ‘done’) the main political parties are faced with a drastically changed landscape. The one thing that is done is the debate over the withdrawal agreement – we are now living that agreement.


What is far from done is the debate over what kind of long-term relationship the UK will end up having with the EU.


However, with a solid government majority and no General Election scheduled until 2 May 2024 the roles of the main parties in that debate are drastically different. The only significant debate the Conservative Party must have is an internal one between different factions. Even then the Prime Minister has both the numbers and the political capital of a successful election to push his own vision (whatever that may be).


The opposition parties meanwhile have returned to their traditional role of impotent fury across the House of Commons divide. There is no point in anyone debating what their stance on the UK’s relationship with the EU will be at the next General Election. The landscape will have changed dramatically by then and it is impossible to predict what the main issues will be in 2024.


However, there is one event approaching where the main parties will have to decide on how to play Brexit: the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. What the main parties decide to do in that election and how they fare electorally will have profound consequences for the future of the main parties and more importantly for the unity or the United Kingdom.


Let’s start with the party whose position is likely to be the least complicated: the Scottish National Party (SNP).


Unless the political situation looks dramatically different (and with the end of the transition period being between now and the Scottish Parliament election anything is possible) the SNP will run on a ‘leave and rejoin’ platform – that is, leave the UK and re-join the EU. That is very much their stance now and it is unlikely to change.


For Labour and the Conservatives, the picture is much less clear. One key issue is that neither party has fully adapted organizationally to devolution. Yes, there are Scottish leaders in both parties, but both party organizations are still essentially centralized with the centre of gravity located in London based HQs.


A charismatic politician such as Ruth Davidson could carve out a significant and distinct Scottish identity, but that is based on the vagaries of personalities, rather than an organisational ‘standard practice.’ This means that on big issues such as unionism the Scottish parts of the main parties are still very much bound to their UK ‘mother parties.’


For the Conservative Party things are probably straightforward. Being (still) the Conservative and Unionist Party, and very much the party of Brexit, their chances in the context of the Scottish Parliament probably look slim – unless Brexit actually turn out to be every bit of the sunlit uplands of opportunity and prosperity envisioned by key Leave supporters.


Neither Unionism nor Brexit are likely to be vote winners in 2021. There have been talks of setting up a separate Conservative Party in Scotland to liberate the Scottish Conservatives from the ‘drag’ of the UK party, but little has come of this. There were also talks of the Conservatives under Ruth Davidson being in with a chance of actually beating the SNP. With the changed political landscape brought on by Brexit and the departure of Davidson their chances have melted away. In short, considering the party’s ingrained Unionism, its status as the party that ‘got Brexit done’ and unpopularity of Brexit in Scotland the Scottish Conservatives are likely to do badly regardless of the details of their 2021 Scottish manifesto.


Labour however, has a far trickier choice to make. On Brexit Labour has a potentially far more sellable position to offer. Brexit is very unpopular with Labour Party members, and although we have now left, the party could still campaign for as close as possible a relationship with the EU, even if outright re-join might be a step too far as illustrated by Jess Philips’ brief foray into that policy.


On ‘Leave’ vs ‘Remain’ (as in the UK) the Labour Party is in a much trickier position. The party’s overall stance is Unionism, which would be a tricky sell with the SNP campaigning on the idea of Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will’ because of its membership (in want of a better word) of the UK. There have been some calls within the Labour Party for the party to support IndyRef2 so as to match the SNP on something along the lines of the SNP’s ‘Leave and Re-join.’ However, the main stumbling block to this approach is the fact that the Scottish Labour Party is still organisationally bound to the wider UK Labour Party and its unionism.


The challenge faced by the two main parties in Scotland illustrates the unresolved organisational problems created by devolution. If they are tied to the UK mother parties their ability to challenge the SNP in a context where the Union is put under increasing strain by Brexit is severely limited. If Scottish Labour and Conservatives are to have a chance of doing well in Scotland, they would need to be able to free themselves of the unionism of the mother parties.


However, organisationally it would be difficult for UK wide parties to drop unionism. This clearly strengthens the case for separate Labour and Conservative parties north of the border, but that would probably only accelerate the unravelling of the UK.


In short, whilst the UK Conservative Party may have declared Brexit ‘done’ the consequences have barely begun to be felt. The first place where Brexit will have its first significant electoral impact is in Scotland, and it is not looking good for the unity of the UK.



Robin Pettitt is a Senior Lecturer of Comparative Politics at Kingston University of London and is a member of the Political Studie Association. He tweets at @RobinPettitt. Image credit: CC by First Minister of Scotland/Flickr.