UK prime minister will have to fight to save the Union from himself
Robert Shrimsley – Financial Times – July 2020
Boris Johnson’s place in history is already assured. Less clear is what the British prime minister will be remembered for. At first it looked like Brexit; more recently he seemed set to be the pandemic premier. But this week, as he celebrates his first year in office, a new fear is that he might be known as the leader who lost the Union.
Not before time, the prime minister’s team is waking up to the renewed threat of Scottish independence, jarred by the strong pandemic performance of Scotland’s nationalist first minister Nicola Sturgeon and recent opinion polls showing a majority for separation.
Mr Johnson helped cause the problem. The 2014 independence referendum should have killed the issue for a generation. But Brexit, which Scotland voted against, revived it. Scots then saw Mr Johnson topple Theresa May, because her approach prioritised saving the Union above a hardline Brexit. In the 2017 election, Mrs May and Ruth Davidson, the Tory party’s then Scottish leader, had reduced the Scottish National party to 37 per cent of the vote. In 2019, against Mr Johnson and his Brexit strategy, the SNP bounced back to 45 per cent. It is now focused on securing a second referendum.
The Johnson team’s instinct is to tough it out. In the words of one senior Downing Street strategist: “No new referendum in any circumstances regardless of shouting from the SNP.” But this may be a hard line to hold if the nationalists win a majority in next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections.
The Conservatives had hoped 2020 would be bad for the SNP. The trial of its former leader, Alex Salmond, would, in theory, tarnish his party and damage Ms Sturgeon who he blamed for his fall. There were splits over when to push for a referendum, and voters were wearying of a party which had run Scotland for more than a decade. But Mr Salmond was acquitted and Covid-19 struck. While Mr Johnson has floundered, Scots have been impressed by Ms Sturgeon, though this owes more to her communications skills than any wild difference in approach. Scotland’s crisis has not been meaningfully better than England’s.
Threats still loom, not least of retribution from Mr Salmond, but as long as the UK has Mr Johnson, the nationalists have a chance. He is now discussing a Scottish tour but this might go down as well as a royal progress by the conquering knights of Edward I. Mr Johnson is, in the words of one Unionist, “irredeemably toxic to Scots”. His allies say Scots want to see him engaging.
One leading unionist observes. “I am very pessimistic. The only real grounds for optimism is that people in London are now very worried and that the cabinet office is getting engaged.” Another adds: “London has now seen what they are dealing with. The SNP are not the Liberal Democrats.” As if to prove this point, hardliners are setting up a new party to take advantage of Scotland’s complex voting system to maximise the Nationalist vote.
Michael Gove, the cabinet office minister who leads on constitutional affairs and is the government’s senior Scot, has accelerated work on a review of intergovernmental relations, which had languished for two years. UK dealings with the devolved administrations are characterised by an almost colonial mindset and need a rethink. One former Downing Street staffer said: “This is not just about politicians. Whitehall also too often treats the first ministers of Scotland and Wales like regional mayors rather than the leaders of countries.”
Last week’s publication of the government’s plan for a fully functioning UK internal market after Brexit was a case in point. This work needed to be done, but neither Ms Sturgeon nor Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, saw the document before the morning of publication. Ministers counter that the SNP had walked out of earlier talks.
The difficulty is that there is no trust between the two sides and the structure of devolution was not designed for a leadership antagonistic to the union itself. This will only get worse as the US trade talks reach a head. With vocal Scottish opposition to weakening food standards, Mr Johnson may be forced to choose between shoring up the Union and the prize of a US trade deal.
That Unionists are waking up to the danger does not mean they are any closer to finding solutions. Most agree that they must find “an emotional argument” for the union. One also argues for small signals like changing the name of the Bank of England to the UK Central Bank.
Mrs May and Ms Davidson successfully argued that 2017 was not the time for more upheaval. With Covid, Brexit and Scotland’s deteriorating fiscal position, this might work again.
But money remains the strongest argument, though there is a pleasing irony in Brexiters playing on the economic fears of nationalist Scots. It was striking that chancellor Rishi Sunak’s emergency Budget emphasised that the UK government had funded Scotland’s furlough scheme. Unionists want more demonstrations of what Scots are getting from the UK. Mr Johnson will also seek to extend his “levelling-up agenda” of investment in the country’s less prosperous regions to Scotland.
Whether this will be enough is debatable. Generationally and politically the tide appears to be flowing towards independence. Mr Johnson’s temptation will be to smother Scotland with cash, and hope to prevent an SNP majority next year. It would, though, be very typical of Johnson to refuse a second referendum even if the SNP does prevail to goad nationalists into demanding an illegal poll, not sanctioned by the UK government. This might create splits and also alienate EU nations with separatist movements. But it would also fuel the grievance culture the nationalists are so skilled at exploiting.
Mr Johnson is drawn to such brinkmanship and sets great store in his political charm, but he knows his Brexit vision has powered the nationalist surge. If Scotland goes, it will be a calamity he has largely visited upon himself. And history will not be kind.