Boris Johnson cannot win the battle for the union

PUBLISHED: 10:07 30 July 2020 | UPDATED: 10:07 30 July 2020

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to members of the crew on the Carvela at Stromness Harbour, in Scotland. Photo: Robert Perry - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to members of the crew on the Carvela at Stromness Harbour, in Scotland. Photo: Robert Perry - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

2020 Getty Images

IAN DUNT on how Brexiteers have set Scotland on a seemingly unstoppable march towards independence.

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By the time the panic set in, it was too late. Boris Johnson scrambled up to Scotland recently as part of a new effort to save the Union, doing his usual impersonation of an upbeat naughty uncle. But behind the spin you could clearly see the anxiety motivating the trip. It was a tacit admission of what has now become brutally clear to everyone: support for independence is growing remorselessly.

The latest report from Panelbase puts support for independence at 54%, next to 46% for the Union. That’s in line with most surveys in the year since Johnson was made prime minister. Only two polls over the last 12 months have suggested the Union would win a referendum, both by one per cent – well within the margin of error.

Meanwhile, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon surges forward. The latest polling puts her approval rating at three times that of the prime minister in Scotland. The SNP is on 55% support, the Conservatives on 20%. Johnson insists he will not allow another referendum on independence, but there’s little he can do to halt that kind of momentum. If the SNP storms home on a pro-referendum ticket in Scottish elections next May, he’ll find it extremely difficult to ignore the mandate. And if he does ignore it, he will create precisely the sort of narrative Sturgeon most wants – Westminster as the jailor, imprisoning Scots against their will, denying them the right to decide on self-determination even when it is clearly supported by the public. Then when a referendum is eventually held, it will be near-impossible to win.

This state of affairs was entirely preventable. It was an accident in slow-motion, in which bystanders consistently pointed out what was happening and were completely ignored.

It started in 2016, when the Brexit result came in. It was immediately obvious that it was going to damage the Union: Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain, England and Wales to Leave.

That situation demanded compromise, a delicate and consensual approach which would respond to the vote with due regard to those who had supported EU membership. And that option was available. It was soft Brexit: leaving the EU but staying in the customs union and single market.

But that wasn’t the way it played out. Instead of compromise, the Leave movement became lost in crazed ideological tribalism. Any deviation from hard Brexit, any attempt to stay close to Europe, was branded a form of heresy.

Those who questioned the government’s actions, or acknowledged the costs of leaving the EU, or who simply wanted institutional scrutiny of the process through parliament and the courts, were branded enemies of the people.

That message, which was drummed out by the press and government ministers, tacitly accepted one of the core ideas in Scottish nationalism: if those who opposed the government’s approach to Brexit were enemies of the people, and Scotland voted overwhelmingly Remain, then it followed that they were a separate set of people from those in England, where a majority supported it.

Johnson’s election as prime minister encapsulated that process. Instead of acknowledging the complexities and difficulties of leaving the EU, all debate was replaced with the deadening, mind-numbing mantra of Get Brexit Done.

You couldn’t have found a politician more likely to push Scotland away if you’d searched for them.

Johnson was a pantomime representation of every caricature Scottish nationalists deployed against the English political class – selfish, disdainful, ignorant, utterly uninterested in events north of the border, brazenly dishonest and fundamentally incapable.

There is a reason Sturgeon welcomes his little trips up to Scotland to save the Union. She understands that every word he speaks, no matter the content, undermines his own case by virtue of the fact that it emerges from his lips.

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Even if his own personality hadn’t undermined him, his actions would have. Johnson’s newfound argument for the Union replicates, almost to the word, the Remain arguments for the EU.

“I think the country is far better together,” he said during his recent visit, revealing a degree of hypocrisy and double-think which is startling even in someone with his record.

The prime minister’s entire political project over the last few years has been to degrade and undermine that kind of proposition. It was that we were worse off together, that nations should not cooperate for mutual advancement but instead break off on their own, that economic considerations take second place to cultural affinities. Now he reaps what he sows, his own logic undone by his record.

His deal with the EU went a step further even than his rhetoric. No matter what Johnson says, he has in fact conceded that there will be a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

That is perhaps the single most striking development in the Scottish independence debate since the Brexit result itself. If Northern Ireland can break off into its own customs territory, then why not Scotland?

Doing so would allow Scotland to disconnect from Britain’s trading ecosystem and head into EU membership.

That won’t all be plain sailing – the UK single market is worth more to Scotland than the EU one is. But Johnson’s deal showed it was possible. He handed Sturgeon a de-facto acceptance of the practicalities of Scottish independence.

He also offered her a powerful set of political arguments. Any suspicion Scotland had about English indifference, about the Union being a bundle of chains rather than a bond of mutual respect, has now been vindicated.

Scotland voted against Brexit. It didn’t matter. Scotland wanted a moderate implementation of the referendum result. It didn’t matter. Scotland despised Johnson. It didn’t matter. They did it anyway.

Once upon a time, Unionists could at least argue that Westminster provided stable, competent government. But that case no longer holds either. It’s more like being chained to a someone who occasionally flies into fits of rage and starts waving a knife around threatening to cut his own legs off.

In the face of that kind of mania, Sturgeon has projected an image of firm, reasonable, reliable authority. Her response to Brexit was evidence-based and unemotional, in stark contrast to the gibbering hysterics of the Leave leadership in London.

During the pandemic she has provided a more consistent and reassuring leadership than that available in Downing Street. Anyone looking for competent, experienced and judicious governance would be hard put to select Westminster over Holyrood.

But in the end, it wasn’t the SNP’s strong performance which brought us to this point. It was English nationalism – a political movement which simply didn’t care about Scotland, which treated it with indifference and became lost in a deranged culture war over Europe which it could neither articulate nor sensibly pursue.

This was all preventable. Every step of the way, the warnings were issued and every step of the way they were ignored.

And now here we are: watching Britain tear itself away from Europe, and then Scotland tear itself away from the 
Union.

A once great power carving itself up into smaller and smaller units, for no discernible purpose. That is what English nationalism has created. A man alone in a raft, lost at sea, insisting he is a navy.

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