UK government to target money in Scotland to counter independence drive

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Scottish businesswoman Marie Macklin voted for independence seven years ago. Now, she does not see it as a priority.

As the Scottish National Party (SNP) pushes for a second referendum after a repeat election victory this month, Macklin believes economic recovery is the real priority, especially for the fortunes of her struggling Scottish home town of Kilmarnock.

On that score, she says, the government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is making a difference.

“I’ve seen a strategic change,” said Macklin, who quickly secured UK government funding to train 200 apprentices for her HALO urban regeneration project in Kilmarnock, a deprived SNP stronghold in Scotland.

She has fought for 12 years to get government money for her 63 million-pound ($89 million) HALO Kilmarnock project, a redevelopment of what was the home of Scotch whisky giant Johnnie Walker, transforming the 23-acre site into a cyber and digital learning facility at its Enterprise and Innovation hub.

She welcomes the funding for her plans to create “a digital army of young people” who were once on social benefits, as part of a change in direction towards helping communities.

Asked if the funding was a ploy to buy votes, she is apolitical, saying she is focused on helping her community.

“If you’re saying: are they doing that to get votes? Is that not what all politicians do?”

Though the SNP triumphed in the Scottish parliamentary elections, the Conservatives gained some ground among voters in the area.

It’s a low base, but according to two sources close to decision-making on the government’s Scotland strategy, it is one the government hopes to build on, in part through its targeted funding of projects.

CONTROVERSIAL BILL

Scotland, a nation of almost 5.5 million people, has long been a bug-bear for the Conservative government, particularly for Johnson whose push for Brexit has only inflamed hostility to his government hundreds of miles away in Westminster.

He has virtually no personal relationship with the SNP’s Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, Conservative sources say, and she has been clear that winning this month’s election has only spurred the pursuit of independence.

Johnson himself is unpopular with many Scots who see him as the epitome of the English upper-class elite, and he was largely kept at arms length in the campaign for the Scottish parliament which saw pro-independence parties take a majority of seats.

But he is fighting back. In the run-up to the election, his government championed its investment in Scotland, sending out a stream of announcements in March highlighting what it described as new funding to the tune of more than 800 million pounds.

Beyond government programmes introduced to protect jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic such as the apprenticeship scheme, ministers hope to push further, using a law that emerged from a different “independence” row: Britain’s split from the European Union.

The Internal Market Act, which came into effect in December 2020, once gave Britain an option to override its previously agreed divorce treaty with the EU, infuriating Brussels and condemned by critics as a betrayal of international law.

Now the separation is done, provisions of the law that were overlooked in the Brexit row will be used to try to keep the United Kingdom together, enabling London to essentially bypass the Scottish government by allowing the government to directly fund projects in infrastructure, education, culture and sport.

The government points to its “levelling-up fund” of 4.8 billion pounds over four years, of which at least 800 million will be set aside for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or its 220 million pound Community Renewal Fund for Britain that will top up existing EU funding to pave the way for a new UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

This will replace funding delivered through the EU, the government says, adding that decisions about where money is invested will be made at a “UK level, not in Brussels”.

This has drawn cries of opposition from the SNP, which sees it as little more than a power grab. It would undermine two decades of devolution which gave the Scottish government and parliament more power to make decisions in certain areas and amounts to a cut from what it received from the EU, it says.

But it also creates a challenge for the SNP, which is pressing for a new independence referendum as soon as possible after the coronavirus pandemic. The SNP does not want to be seen to be denying money for parts of Scotland just because the funding comes from Westminster.

“They think that plastering union flags around will make a difference, they will obviously be able to use a lot of publicity, ‘Oh aren’t we generous we’ve given you this’,” said Philippa Whitford, the SNP lawmaker in the Westminster parliament for nearby Central Ayrshire.

“So all of it is to try to tie people up, but in the long term, people do value devolution.”

The government denies the act is a power grab. Alister Jack, Britain’s Scottish secretary, said this month: “We required this legislation to protect Scottish businesses and Scottish jobs.”

MISSING PIECES

The row, though, underlines the difficulties the British government will have on building its Scotland strategy – push too hard and it could firm up some Scots’ desire to press for independence. Polls show Scots split more or less evenly for or against independence.

So far, the government has been largely silent on what other tools it expects to deploy. It finally settled on a team of advisers only last month when Johnson drafted in Sue Gray, a former ethics supremo in Downing Street, to lead the team tasked with protecting the union.

She and senior minister Michael Gove are seen as pivotal in drafting the next steps in the strategy that will go beyond its more general drive of tackling inequality across Britain.

“I would argue there needs to be large social, cultural piece showing positive side of British identity,” said Luke Graham, a former adviser on Scotland in Downing Street.

For Macklin, getting the ear of government is worth it if it means the UK government putting funds directly into the private sector and helping communities.

She would also like to see the creation of a joint UK strategy involving business leaders to help the post-COVID recovery and to reach the government’s environmental goals.

“I don’t care who takes the credit for this…regeneration project coming to fruition after 12 years, it was a lot of blood sweat and tears. But in the end the community won.”

Photo: The Scottish Saltire (C) and the Union jack (R) hang from a building in Edinburgh, Scotland. EPA/ANDY RAIN