March 31, 2021 - 8:00am

A persistent problem with devolution, from a unionist perspective, is how often it aligns the short-term electoral interests of even pro-UK politicians against what’s best for the United Kingdom in the long run.

How much easier it is, for example, to complain about Westminster and demand more power than defend unpopular decisions made by the Government in London, as Labour so often do.

Last night, during and after the first leadership debate of the upcoming Scottish elections, saw the Scottish Conservatives falling into a different version of the same trap.

Anas Sarwar, the new Labour leader, put in a solid performance and it’s clear that the Tories are worried that they might be set to lose second place. They thus took to Twitter to hammer him on the issue that matters most to the Conservative core vote: the Union. Here’s Andrew Bowie, the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine:

“Anas Sarwar is ignoring the fact that if the SNP win this election, we will face a divisive, destructive referendum within months. He might not like it, but it is a fact.”

Is it a fact? That will come as a surprise to anybody who has been taking Boris Johnson at his word when he has said, repeatedly, that he will not grant the Scottish Government the Section 30 order required to hold a legal re-run of the 2014 referendum.

Should the Nationalists manage to pull off a majority in May, and that is far from impossible, unionists may come to reject having the Tories apparently endorse the idea that a referendum is Holyrood’s call to make – just as Alex Salmond’s Alba Party may rue the emphasis they’re placing on a ‘supermajority’.

(After all, it was just such a threshold which saw George Cunningham thwart Labour’s bid to introduce devolution in 1979, delaying its advent by 20 years.)

This is the great Conservative dilemma. For all that Douglas Ross rightly attacked the SNP for focusing on independence rather than education or healthcare, Tory strategists know that they were the beneficiaries of constitutionally polarised politics in 2016. It is defending the Union, rather than the specifics of their policy agenda, which energises their base.

Likewise, it makes tactical sense to attack Sarwar for refusing to talk about a unionist pact but in their hearts the Conservatives must realise that Labour’s best chance of maximising the overall vote for pro-UK parties is by winning back soft-SNP voters.

Time and again, at the 2019 general elections and local by-elections, the voters have shown that the combined Labour, Tory, and Liberal Democrat vote is not a fungible ‘unionist vote’. There is deep resistance to tactical voting. Sarwar’s quiet focus on public services is the right call.

In fact, a Labour revival on such terms could even directly benefit the Conservatives, if it saps Nationalist votes in marginals where they are challenged by the Tories.

Of course, the needs of the moment make it impossible to admit this. But the Scottish Tories should not, in their scramble to land blows on Labour, undermine the legitimacy of Westminster’s right to refuse a second referendum. That is the much more important defensive line than who gets the prime spot at First Minister’s Questions.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.