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By John Oxley
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Unionism And Young People: In Conversation With Arlene Foster, Douglas Ross And Ian Murray

Union Jacks

6 min read

How invested are the youth of Northern Ireland and Scotland in upholding their nation’s place in the UK? Former Northern Irish First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, and shadow secretary of state for Scotland Ian Murray discuss how pro-union politicians must up their game to win the hearts and minds of young people.

Adam Payne (AP): Polls show the SNP and Sinn Féin campaigns to break away from the UK enjoying significant support from young people. Why? Have unionists politicians been complacent?

Arlene Foster (AF): The SNP and Sinn Féin are very noisy in getting their message across, so much so that it becomes the dominant narrative. They do it very well on social media.

But I’ve been incredibly disappointed by mainstream media outlets, particularly in Northern Ireland, which have adopted the narrative that because of Brexit, a border poll in Northern Ireland is inevitable. It’s not inevitable at all.

We need to break down the relevance of the union to young people and their everyday lives.

There’s no point having esoteric constitutional debates about the union, though I’d very happily do that all day. For example, take an issue like healthcare: if you live in the Republic of Ireland, you have to pay to see your GP. It’s going to cost you 40 to 60 euros. You don’t have to do that in the UK because we have the NHS.Douglas Ross (DR): Sometimes we speak far too generally.

We’ll say billions of pounds have gone to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but what does that mean for a young person?

We can do far better at personalising the impact being part of the UK has on individuals.

For many young people here in Scotland who work in hospitality, for example, their jobs were protected through the UK’s furlough scheme; that was only possible because Scotland is part of the United Kingdom.

AP: You both touched on the importance of narrative. Is that where unionists need to up their game?

DR: Sometimes politicians of all parties focus on the headline figures. But what does X figure going into Y sector actually mean? How does it affect an individual’s job, area or family? The SNP has been quite successful in drilling right down and putting forward individual-focused arguments.

That is far more appealing than wider, generic arguments.

I don’t think we, as unionists, have necessarily delivered our message in the best way to people, especially young people.AF: It’s also difficult to defend something rather than to seek change.

The SNP and Sinn Féin make a lot of the fact they’re seeking change and something better. If you’re disaffected for any reason at all with any situation you find yourself in, then seeking change is often attractive. We must grapple with that as unionists.

We have to say: ‘Yes, the union is good but it can be better, so here’s our vision for it.’

We shouldn’t allow nationalists and separatists to take this change piece away from us. We should be talking about why the union has been really good [and] how we can improve it in the future. That is where we need to step up.

And we must not wait for a point of crisis – we should be doing that right now.

Ian Murray (IM): Arlene is right. It’s difficult to make a practical argument against the emotional ones. When you’re defending the status quo, people know what it is. But when you’re offering something different, you can define it in any way you wish.

But we have also got to champion what we currently have.

There’s no doubt the Scottish parliament, Welsh senedd and Northern Irish assembly have been hugely successful in what they’ve done for the local people. We have not talked about that enough.

The reason for that in the Scottish context is the SNP have used the devolution agenda to advance the cause of independence, so they are responsible for nothing despite having the powers. Many ordinary voters in Scotland have thought: ‘Well, if we have no power to do anything, the only way to gain power is by separating from the UK.’ When in actual fact, Holyrood is one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world.

I’d just add one little postscript: Scotland’s geography makes it much more difficult to keep young people because of the lack of jobs and opportunities in the Highlands and Islands, and places like that. But most of the brain drain from Scotland is 19- to 24-year-olds going to London and Manchester – and the biggest portion of people who leave Scotland every year is that age group.

That tells you its own story: young Scots want to move around and be in the UK. AF: When I was in Scotland recently, I noticed that SNP supporters had really adopted the Saltire as their emblem. But there are people who feel very strongly Scottish, as I feel very strongly Northern Irish, who like me also feel very strongly British. It’s how we reinvigorate that identity.

AP: So what role does Downing Street play in all of this? The old Union Unit was recently disbanded and there’s been some personnel change too. Is it now fit to fight for the union?

DR: Downing Street is in a very good place now with the cabinet subcommittee [of] the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the territorial secretaries of state.

We’ve also had the recent appointment of Baron McInnes of Kilwinning. He has extensive knowledge of the union and was integral in the Better Together campaign of 2014. 

IM: This is going to be the first bit of disagreement because No 10 is very much part of the problem and always has been. The Prime Minister doesn’t get the union, at least speaking from a Scottish point of view.

One of the problems is he is incredibly unpopular, especially with young people.

His ‘muscular unionism’, as Gordon Brown described it, doesn’t work. Sticking union jacks on things and sending cheques across the border doesn’t work. It has to be much more nuanced.

That’s why voices outside of Downing Street are going to be the way forward. Figures like Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram who are demanding more powers from Westminster.

AP: Would you be comfortable with the PM leading a future unionist campaign, Douglas?

DR: There is a role to play for politicians across the country.

It can’t be seen as one individual against another individual. Nicola Sturgeon won’t be First Minister forever, Boris Johnson won’t be Prime Minister forever, and Andy Burnham won’t be the mayor of Greater Manchester forever. Andy Burnham may even have higher aspirations!

And that’s why it’s more important No 10 has the key role, rather than individuals who occupy these positions at the moment.

AF: I smiled when Douglas said Nicola Sturgeon won’t always be First Minister, as I can certainly identify with that! It’s absolutely the case that we must not make this politician-centric. It really puts people – especially young people – off because they think it’s just about our own survival.

AP: That feels like a good note to end on. Thanks a lot Arlene, Ian and Douglas!

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