Sunak and Truss have consistently voted against giving further powers to the devolved nations – and their recent comments do not bode well

Lisa Burtonby Lisa Burton

Recently, we’ve all witnessed a true ‘blue on blue’ war of words as Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak battle to become the next leader of the Conservative Party and thereby the next prime minister of the not-so-United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In their desperation to appease a tiny minority of the population – the Conservative Party membership – they have indulged in a game of ‘who can stoop the lowest and swerve hardest right’. In doing this, they have exposed their ignorance and intention to continue to show disdain for the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, their people, and their elected leaders.

Both candidates have consistently voted against giving further powers to the devolved nations. Sunak and Truss have rejected further devolution to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments over 90% of the time when they have voted on the issue at Westminster, including an amendment to the Scotland bill, which would have required the consent of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people before Holyrood could be abolished.

Sunak on Wales

Both candidates had strong words of criticism for devolution. At the leadership hustings in Cardiff on 3 August, Sunak declared that “the path of onward devolution has not worked” and suggested that leaders at Westminster needed to “fix” it. Precisely what he means by ‘fixing’ is unknown. It could mean anything from reducing powers to total abolishment.

He then accused the Welsh Government of “squandering” millions and “failing” children and hospital patients, saying he wanted to “make sure that people in Wales get the public services that they demand”. If only those living in England knew that all they had to do was demand required services.

As for accusations of squandering money? That’s a bit rich coming from a chancellor whose party wasted £37bn alone on a failed track and trace system and billions more on unusable PPE, fraudulent Covid business relief funds and unfair levelling up funds, to name a few.

Truss on Wales

Truss had a similar approach to Wales but added a personal touch in attacking Mark Drakeford, the elected First Minister of Wales:

“The fact is that there are too many people in this country who are ashamed of our, who talk our country down and say the best days are behind us. They are completely wrong, and one of those is Mark Drakeford. Whether it’s stopping the M4 relief road, whacking a tax on our tourist industry, I will crack down on his negativity about Wales and the United Kingdom.”

She added, “We will be able to take on the low-energy version of Jeremy Corbyn that is Mark Drakeford”.

The Welsh Government ditched the M4 relief road project for environmental reasons in favour of six new train stations between Cardiff and Newport. Yet Johnson pledged to build the M4 relief road anyway, leading to Drakeford accusing the UK Government of “pretending” to have the power to do it.

When Truss was explicitly asked if she would build the M4 relief road, she also said: “Yes”. Neither Westminster nor the PM has the power to force Wales to build the road. They know this, but it’s all part of their divisive power playing.

Sunak on Scotland

Sunak told the Spectator podcast in July that another referendum on Scottish independence is “not the priority” for people in Scotland. Quite a sweeping and factually incorrect statement considering over 50% of the Scottish electorate support Scottish independence and, therefore, a 2nd referendum. His arrogance also fails to recognise that the SNP, a party whose objective is to bring about independence, has a huge mandate from the Scottish electorate. They hold 64 out of 129 seats. Impressive, considering Scotland has a form of proportional representation, not first past the post as Westminster does.

Although Sunak did have a nice little story about working in Darlington, Scotland. Darlington is in England and over 100 miles from the Scottish border.

Truss on Scotland

“What’s happening in Scotland is the entire resources of the Scottish Government are being used to run essentially an independence campaign, and I think that is grossly irresponsible”, Truss said.

Apart from being ludicrous, it’s also hugely hypocritical. The Conservatives brought Brexit for their version of ‘independence’ against the wishes of the Scots, who voted 62% to remain in the EU, while Brexit has been sucking the life out of the UK Government and country for six years, costing billions and taking 25,000 civil servants to implement it.

Truss didn’t stop there; she took another leaf out of Donald Trump’s tactic book and went after Nicola Sturgeon personally. Truss questioned how she would tackle the growing separatist sentiment in Scotland, “The best thing to do with Nicola Sturgeon is ignore her.” After hoots of laughter from the Tory membership, she added: “I’m sorry, she’s an attention seeker, that’s what she is.”

This coming from a woman who is regularly mocked for her indulgence in a bit of cosplay for photo opportunities and obsession with image. However, after recent reports that the only time Truss and Sturgeon met at Cop26, Truss asked Sturgeon, “How do you get into Vogue?” It all makes sense. Jealousy is not an admirable trait Ms Truss.

Increasing support for Scottish independence

The Conservatives continue to be a gift to the SNP by driving an increase in support for independence. The Perth hustings held on 16 August garnered quite a protest outside. Tempers were flared.

Sunak doubled down on previous comments, saying he could not “imagine the circumstances” in which he would allow a second independence vote and that “now or anytime in the near future” would not be the time to focus on it.

Truss was greeted with loud cheers from Conservative members when she said: “If I am elected as prime minister, I will not allow another independence referendum.”

Their tactics are arrogant and failing. Recent polling has shown that whether it be Truss or Sunak that becomes PM, both candidates will increase the ‘Yes vote’ for Scottish independence.

Johnson also devised his own plan this week, the day before the Perth hustings – he decided he would take Scotland’s water for England. Did he think the Scots were going to cheer this on? No, of course not; he just doesn’t think of the Scots’ needs at all.

Northern Ireland

Simply put, if the Conservatives cared about Northern Ireland, its people and maintaining peace under the Good Friday Agreement, they would not have chosen the version of Brexit they did and this version will almost certainly lead to the reunification of Ireland.

Like Scotland, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union. The UK could have left the political institutions of the EU but remained in the single market. Doing that would have been the sensible option and compromise between Leave and Remain, particularly on such a narrow result. More importantly, it would have meant no border in the Irish Sea or between the North and South of Ireland.

With a softer Brexit, equivalence could have been maintained between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but the Tory party’s hard right had long since hijacked Brexit for their agenda. In Johnson, they found the perfect dodgy salesman.

The Northern Ireland protocol is the solution to the hard Brexit the Conservatives fought for, not the problem.

Johnson announced he had his “oven-ready” Brexit deal within weeks of taking office. He repeatedly lied in the media to business leaders and the people of Northern Ireland, saying there would be no checks or forms on the movement of goods and animals. It was a blatant and calculated lie.

Not only did he throw Northern Ireland under the Brexit bus, but the government also signed an international treaty with the European Union in bad faith. Johnson knew the border would cause issues with unionists, but he also knew he had no intention of honouring the details in the deal.

Belfast Hustings

The Conservative membership comprises fewer than 600 members in Northern Ireland and the hustings itself was always going to be awkward for the leadership candidates.

There were questions around Westminster having the right to ban abortion in Northern Ireland. One audience member asked whether Truss would appoint another “fly in, fly out political landlord” instead of someone “accountable to the electorate”. While another questioned her over her continued loyalty to the outgoing prime minister, who, they said, had “continually lied” to parliament.

Both candidates doubled down on the protocol bill but with Truss confirming they would enact it in totality with Sunak trying to be the professional, saying he would try to negotiate with Brussels while simultaneously breaking international law.

Suppose the Conservatives’ protocol bill is enacted through parliament. In that case, it will lead to the EU launching legal action, likely sanctions and a possible trade war, which the UK will lose. Prices of goods will rocket, on top of a cost-of-living crisis already affecting so many. It would be a dereliction.

The channelling of Margaret Thatcher

As reported in the Spectator, the Thatcherite obsession confirms the Conservatives remain utterly indifferent to the sensitivities and history of the nations. “The misguided souls on the right, including in Scotland, who believe Holyrood should be strongly reined in by London, which is one sure way to push the electorate towards independence.”

The Thatcher government saw Scotland as an “experiment” for the divisive poll tax, and the Scottish have not forgotten. Oliver Letwin stated that a tax based on people, not property, “would create too many big losers” in England and Wales; hence they trialled it north of the border. The poll tax would, of course, be Thatcher’s downfall.

Thatcher’s confrontations with the unions were popular with some. However, in Wales, the miners’ strikes were experienced very differently and, even today, are still a source of anger and trauma in some areas.

In 1979 there was a referendum on Welsh devolution. Only 20.3% were for and 79.7% against. By 1997 a nation sick of Thatcher’s policies voted 50.3%, Yes, and Welsh devolution was born.

Thatcher became a symbol of division between Wales and England that could only be reconciled by Wales gaining at least some control over its domestic affairs. A study from Martin Johnes of Swansea University found:

“In 1986, there had been more than 166,000 people in Wales on the dole. By then, less than 40% of Welsh households were headed by someone in full-time employment. Nearly a fifth of men out of work had been so for five years or more.”

These communities are still amongst the most disadvantaged in the country. These communities have not forgotten.

No one to blame but themselves

The Conservative Party of recent years are no unionists. They are the party of populism and English nationalism. As was foretold, it is now just a matter of time before their ideological pursuit of a hard Brexit breaks the Union. The question is, who will go first?