Downing Street is embarking on an incompetent battle to preserve the Union
Boris Johnson doesn’t care about Scotland. There are a lot of complex elements to the government’s anti-independence strategy, but at the heart of it is that one simple fact. He doesn’t understand Scotland and he isn’t interested in it.
There couldn’t be a worse time for someone like that to be in charge of the UK. But then, we wouldn’t be in such a perilous state if it wasn’t for Johnson in the first place. Brexit created a material change which validated calls for another independence referendum. The disrespect shown to Scottish views in its aftermath super-charged the demand for it. And now the prospect of separation seems very real indeed.
Next month, the SNP will probably win an electoral mandate for another referendum. Johnson insists he will not grant it. Legally, he is on safe ground. But politically, he is not. His refusal will eradicate the notion of consent in the Union. It will no longer be a cooperative partnership. It will be a prison.
There are two broad camps in Downing Street over how to deal with the Scotland issue. One is based on killing the SNP with kindness and the other is based on killing it with conflict.
The former was once represented by Michael Gove, who pushed for the leaders of the devolved administrations to be invited to attend Cabinet. The latter was represented by Oliver Lewis, a hardliner of the Vote Leave faction, who wanted to hammer the SNP in a brute constitutional showdown.
Putting aside the moral implications, you could make the case for either of these approaches on a purely strategic level. But you would still need to actually decide between them. The very worst thing would be to bounce indecisively from one to the other. And yet that is exactly what is happening.
Lewis was brought in to head the so-called Union Unit last February, in a move which seemed to indicate that Gove’s approach had been rejected. But two weeks later, amid one of the sporadic briefing wars which occasionally erupt in Johnson’s fiefdom-riddled government, he had quit.
The Union Unit was replaced by two Cabinet committees, one chaired by Johnson and the other by Gove. So who is now in charge of Union policy? No-one really knows. It’s not clear that anyone is. What’s the plan to save the Union? No-one really knows that either.
Take the Internal Market Act, which became law last December. It was intended to copy-and-paste the EU’s structural funds system, which gave money to regions with a per capita GDP below the European average. Brussels would set overall spending priorities, but then the devolved assemblies would make decisions about how they were allocated.
The Internal Market Act changed that. It removed the involvement of the devolved assemblies, allowing No.10 to fund local projects in Scotland and Wales without any participation from the national government.
The Scottish and Welsh parliaments refused legislative consent for the bill. The UK parliament passed it anyway. No.10 promised a consultation, which never came. It then established a ‘levelling-up fund’ for capital spending, alongside a ‘shared prosperity fund’, which would replicate the EU’s structural funds, piloted by a ‘community renewal fund’. They would be deployed without Scottish or Welsh government approval.
Johnson told Scottish Conservatives that he wanted to shift powers from the devolved Edinburgh parliament to “councils and communities across Scotland”. But in reality he was doing something different. He was using Brexit to partially reverse devolution.
The funding would apply even if it directly contradicted the political goals of the elected national administrations. Wales’ first minister, for instance, had declared a climate emergency and scrapped a plan to build a relief road. But the secretary of state for Wales is now threatening to overrule him using the powers in the Internal Market Act.
Meanwhile, Gove’s softly-softly approach is also pursued. ‘Project Love’ has seen numerous ideas mooted, including building a bridge between the nations, sending Prince Edward and the Countess of Wessex to live in Scotland, holding occasional Cabinet meetings in the nations and shaking up the committee system for devolved communication.
These love and conflict strategies are operating simultaneously, like two hands acting independently without a brain to guide them. There is no consistency to this plan. It has no coherence. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be a plan at all. It is the accidental byproduct of a decision-making system which failed to make a decision.
And that ultimately comes down to the original sin. Johnson has no real interest or understanding for Scotland. Watching him try to save the Union is like seeing someone read a technical manual in a foreign language. That is why No.10’s efforts seem so deranged and contradictory. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. And he doesn’t really care.
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