MICHAEL WHITE on the talent and energy for the Brexit and union battles.
Who was it who likes to mention his love of Whac-a-Mole? Ah, yes, the prime minister. But Boris Johnson is finding out what more serious students of the popular Japanese arcade game could have told him from the start. The more the player thumps those moles down the hole the faster they keep reappearing.
The Covid pandemic mole? Whack. Those Brexit trade talks? Whack again. US trade talks? Whack, but only gently because the White House is sensitive. Oh no, here comes the Scottish independence mole which McBoris thought he’d love-bombed out of sight ages ago. And what’s that, the Irish border protocol mole and the Huawei retaliation mole, would you believe it?
Now the Covid mole has popped back up too, though, strictly speaking, it’s a cat that’s caught Covid-19, not a mole. After the huge response to last week’s Whitehall quiz (‘what does the new mask policy mean?’) it’s the turn of quarantine policy to baffle us all. With Mediterranean holiday destinations threatening to do to Europe what Chinese New Year travel did for Wuhan in super-spreading January, ministers hastily produced a ‘Spanish quarantine’ mole. Not confusing enough? Let’s speculate about cutting 14 days to 10 and add the Covid-lite Balearic Islands to the mix. Holidaymakers heading both ways at airports sounded distinctly cross. Selectively briefing mates on friendly newspapers doesn’t help. Do we believe Boris’s ‘second wave’ talk – or is it a first wave spike after lockdown easing?
Thank goodness the Brexit mole looks like staying out of the media’s sight for a few weeks, exhausted No.10 officials must tell each other. With luck their boss will take a serious holiday too, he hasn’t had one for weeks and starts WhatsApp-ing colleagues at 6am (so cheerleaders claim). He needs to preserve his strength if he’s to survive a second year in office. Another one as ‘successful’ as his first year – so we kept reading last week – and even the Daily Borisgraph might defect.
If so, Tory MPs, always unsentimental when discarding leaders, could feed him to those Orkney crabs which Johnson gingerly handled for the TV cameras on his flying visit to remote corners of Scotland. Competing as it did with rival escapist attractions (how did Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s decadent feud jump the legal traffic jam?), Johnson’s trip wasn’t big news in Fleet Street and seems to have attracted some mockery north of the border.
According to local reporter, Fiona Grahame’s admirably balanced account in the Orkney News (it began: ‘ It was a dreich morning for Boris Johnson’s visit….’) the secrecy surrounding his appearance in Stromness (pop 2,200) on a drearily overcast – ie dreich – day did not prevent protesters lining the route to welcome their PM. ‘Save the NHS’ is a familiar poster everywhere and Extinction Rebellion was also present, pro-EU supporters too, as well as one despairing soul writing ‘Not Enough Space to List Your Wrong Doings’. BLM also made itself felt thanks to a group called ‘Orkney Oot Wae Racism’.
Orkney has always been very independent-minded and only joined Scotland from Norway in 1472, almost yesterday in its 8,000 year history. In line with most Scots, Orcadians voted Remain in 2016 (by 63% to 37%) and against independence (by a high 67% to 33%) in 2014. Occasionally they threaten to break away from Scotland again. Oslo is 500 miles away, Edinburgh only 200, but post-Viking Norway and its vast oil reserves must look attractive on dreich days.
But that’s the point about separatism and identity politics, isn’t it? Where does it end? If it wasn’t so serious it would be funny to hear Johnson and his ministers extolling the virtues of the single UK market – four nations pooling their sovereignty in a Union, eh! All underpinned by the financial heft which the British Treasury and Bank of England can provide. But no funnier than Team Sturgeon making the same case for Scexit that it deplores on the lips of Vote Leave: Take Back Control, whatever the practical cost, because it feels right.
In his clumsy John Bull in a Balmoral Tea Shop way Johnson arrived with an extra £1.9 billion in grants from the UK taxpayer, Scots among them. Scotland’s finance minister, Kate Forbes, duly disparaged it along with the pandemic billions (£4.7 billion?) which Rishi Sunak provided to furlough 900,000 Scottish jobs. As with Boris’s referendum bus it’s easy to massage figures. Orkney News’ Fiona Grahame explained that Johnson’s ‘£100 million Islands Deal’ is actually a three-way split with Shetland and the Hebridean islands councils. What’s more, half will come from Edinburgh over 10 years, half over 15 years from London. Party time it ain’t.
The painful fact is that both administrations look unimpressive from the outside and have done much in near lockstep during the pandemic, including the latest Spanish quarantine. Strip out England’s less populated regions along with the Highlands and Borders and the Covid casualty rates in dense urban areas and care homes won’t be very different. Unfortunately it suits both Nicola Sturgeon and Boris (‘there are things we could have done better’) Johnson to accentuate tensions and ‘play politics with the pandemic’ while accusing each other of doing so. It’s all in the Trump playbook: divide, don’t unify.
It is unfortunate for the Union – the UK one as well as the European Union-lite – that Sturgeon is a far steadier politician and better communicator than Johnson, one who has handled the Covid PR well and got the credit for it – a +60 rating from voters while Johnson’s is -39. Support for independence has risen to a steady 55:45%, the reverse of 2014. Boris drove away Ruth Davidson, the Unionists’ charismatic hope who squeezed the Nats to 37% in 2017.
No wonder blustering Boris steered clear of meeting Sturgeon (how discourteous and cowardly is that?) or that she said she welcomed his visit as a handy 50th birthday present. In consequence of his toxicity and mishandling of the Covid crisis the Nats look set to win well in May’s elections to the Scottish parliament, boosted by a tactical ‘breakaway’ party designed solely to hoover up extra seats for the SNP in the regional list section.
I could explain how the Labour-devised Holyrood voting system works that way – not as it was intended – but in my experience most voters are more interested in the feeling than the detail. Suffice to advise scepticism towards claims that PR voting is ‘fairer’ than Westminster’s First-Past-The-Post. It’s not necessarily fairer, it’s just different, like the VAR in football. As Israeli politics usually remind us, it doesn’t necessarily produce better government – or Covid management either. In politics there’s no substitute for honesty of purpose and competence of administration, both tragically in short supply in touchy-feely times.
No surprise then that the nationalist regime in Scotland has cowed or centralised independent institutions, including the police, media and civil service. Or that the essentially nationalist regime in England has done the same. Both beat up on the British Broadcasting Corporation, as unpatriotic, though the wider world admires it. Why? In his provocative history, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, Professor David Edgerton argues that ‘Britishness’ lasted less than 50 mid-century years and is coming apart.
Before 1914 ours had been a ‘country with no name,’ or rather with several ambiguous ones like ‘the Nation’ and ‘the Empire’. Sometimes Americans would talk simply – they still do – of ‘England’, though I did not previously know that between the two world wars Scottish nationalists demanded that the British Empire be rebranded as the ‘Anglo-Scottish Empire’.
In better times these islands would evolve a new constitutional settlement by patient negotiation, rooted in trust, mutual respect and goodwill. All are necessary preconditions to compromise. There’s lots for them to do: more power, policy and financial control devolved to the regions, English regions too, within a quasi-federated system which retained enough fiscal clout to ‘level up’ – there’s a phrase – in decayed and impoverished areas. The increasingly discredited Lords could become a regionally-elected senate, though I’m not sure about moving it to York.
And the tax system cries out for modernisation, greater efficiency and fairness, vital to economic success and social harmony. That would take real courage and Sunak certainly needs extra money. Britain is the most centralised state in Europe and, as in so much, its response to Covid-19 has shown its flaws. So does its tax system. Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff feel snubbed by London, but so do Manchester, Brum and Newcastle. In a week when all of Spain has been slapped with a UK quarantine we could add Malaga and San Sebastian to the list.
At least as lethal as Scottish separatism in this bubbling cauldron is parochial English indifference to the value of the Union, some 49% favouring ‘English independence’ according to one recent poll. It’s tempting to pigeonhole such reckless short-sightedness as coming from voters who also backed Brexit. Let’s resist it and say that many feel as bruised and left-behind for good reasons as BLM activists do – certainly better ones than armchair nationalists in Maidstone or Morningside.
Instead Nicola’s expected triumph next May (Boris isn’t alone in getting first-name treatment) is likely to be the cue for renewed demands for another ‘once in a generation’ referendum. She looks like winning it unless the ‘Stronger Together’ campaign (has Boris the Unionist pinched that one too?) can come up with a powerful emotional appeal that resonates. No.10 briefers – there are so many – insist that Johnson will face down such demands. Do we believe he has the fixity of purpose and political guile to outfox the wily first minister? No, we do not.
As with those trade negotiations with the EU27 the lazy fallback is that Angela Merkel and/or Emmanuel Macron will rescue us from our own ineptitude at the 11th hour. Several EU states have serious separatist movements and would disabuse iScotland’s hopes of a smooth re-entry on easy, even generous terms, goes the argument. The flip side is also familiar: an independent Scotland would not only be breaking away from its biggest market – like Brexit Britain is doing from the EU – but its financial problems would be vastly more acute.
At least Northern Ireland, where the logic of haphazard events push it towards unification with a much-modernised Republic, would have a home to go to. If Johnson’s Irish Sea border protocol proves as economically hopeless as the DUP fears, that becomes a distinct possibility. Scotland’s challenge is greater. As in 2014, the SNP can’t even say what currency it would use. It all sounds very Boris, government by column: make it up as you go along.
No sensible person would want any of this to happen on a romantic wing and columnar prayer, though the EU27 may be beyond caring much. Instead Moscow and Beijing may see opportunities in impoverished disarray, ones which they could only have dreamed of just 20 years ago. Both are already entrenched in high places, as last week’s intelligence report showed. Scot Nats who regard the Union of 1707 as an English coup – greased with money after Scotland went bust – should know the risk.
But so should Tory cabinet ministers in London, with their expensive education and history degrees. After Johnson put what turned out to be a stuffed ‘tiger in the tank’ Whitehall sources predicted a basic trade deal with the EU by July, then by August, maybe ‘quiet hopes of a September trade deal ‘ (the Times). This moving staircase would avoid being caught in an October cul-de-sac without enough time to prepare properly (!) for a no-deal outcome if things go wrong. Hollow laughter.
Now we may be looking at October or later as British firms, already groaning under the multiple costs of pandemic disruption to both supply and demand, quietly tear their hair out. Those few newspapers which do report progress/lack-of note Michel Barnier’s hair-tearing frustration at London’s unwillingness (‘going round in circles’) to respond in substance to his concessions. He apparently now accepts that the ECJ will not have over-arching jurisdiction over whatever regulatory regime is finally agreed. Let’s hope it is worth the trouble and cost.
Some other arbitration mechanism will be used to confirm the ‘level playing field’, however bumpy. That sounds quite Norwegian. In return David Frost, EU negotiator turned novice national security adviser (‘Banana republic stuff,’ complains a senior ex-minister), has conceded that Britain will accept a single trade package, not a series of side deals in the Swiss fashion that has annoyed the EU for decades. That is a significant UK concession because it could allow Brussels to punish transgressions in one sector by penalties in another.
These talks are not a morality play with right on one side or the other, as ‘Brussels blocking progress’ headlines would have us believe. Frost and Barnier are entitled to fear that concessions made too early will simply be pocketed. Brussels fears that the Brits would exploit lax ‘rules of origin’ to use tariff-and-quota-free EU access to become an offshore assembly hub with lower standards. London thinks it will get a better deal if the 27 genuinely believe Johnson and Dom Cummings will drive us all over the cliff. I believe the hooligans. It keeps me awake because their other leverage scenario, the fantasy of an early UK/US deal, has predictably bitten the dust.
The FT reports that Britain has accepted it must lose some non-criminal data sharing rights as one price of avoiding ECJ supervision. It will not be able to self-certify its professional qualifications either. The fisheries dispute – one area where Britain does hold most of the cards and where only six of the EU 27 states are much bothered – can be settled. It will be used as leverage down to the wire. Orkney will be watching closely to protect its export markets as well as its catch, detailed concerns which vary hugely between ports. The Hebrides already flies expensive fish to China.
And, of course, there are financial services, not just the mighty City of London’s. Subject to a separate negotiation and fiendishly complicated, they depend on the wider settlement. The flight of jobs and money from London has been real, but modest, nothing like Macron’s wooing anticipated. Instead the most serious stumbling block, all agree, is over state aid to businesses as part of the level playground agenda.
It has been clear for weeks that Johnson’s Brexit-compliant cabinet has been stirred by departmental rivalries to fall out over animal welfare and environmental standards, now over state aid rules.
The degree of ‘sovereignty’ the Cummings faction thinks it needs – not least in governing state aid within the four home nations –amounts to a ‘vague and non-statutory’ commitment to behave. That is not the EU’s way, though in practice its own state aid policy is in flux. Virtuous Germany has become its biggest subsidy junkie during successive crises.
It’s wise to discount chippy rhetoric on both sides, done to please domestic audiences prior to compromise dressed up as victory. As with McBoris’s dealings with Scotland I’d be happier if I saw more evidence of mutual respect, trust and competence to steer us to safe harbour. But as with Covid U-turns, social care packages, immigration, even daft NHS subsidies for bike repairs, it all seems very improvised.
As they say in Orkney the outlook is a bit dreich.