Can Boris Johnson avoid becoming the prime minister who lost Scotland?

·6-min read
<p>Boris Johnson has faced plenty of questions over Scottish independence</p> (EPA)

Boris Johnson has faced plenty of questions over Scottish independence


The latest war of Scottish independence may lack the heroic drama of Bannockburn but it currently looks just as ominous for the English forces.

The re-election of an SNP government and a majority in the Scottish parliament for pro-independence parties provides a new impetus behind the demand for a referendum. However, although Robert the Bruce took two days to wipe out the forces of Edward II, it will take years of attritional warfare to win this time round.

In Scotland’s complex two-tier voting system – with constituency and "regional list" candidates – the SNP won 64 out of 130 seats, up one but still one short of an overall majority. The pro-independence Greens also won eight seats, up two. Pro-independence parties won 49 per cent of the vote in the constituencies and 50.1 per cent on the regional list (which also included votes for the failed Alba party of Alex Salmond). Scotland is thus split roughly 50:50, though the unionist parties are fragmented, a mirror image of the Brexit division where the pro-Europe parties were split in much the same way.

After a decade of patchy performance in government, characterised by failures in some key areas such as school standards, why did the SNP do so well in getting elected as the governing party for the fourth time?

It appears to have benefited from a general aura of competence in the handling of the pandemic, as did the Labour Party in Wales and the Tories did in England due to the successful vaccine roll out. The objective indicators – death rates for example – don’t suggest that Scotland did noticeably better overall, but Nicola Sturgeon spoke with authority, empathy and a candour which Scots evidently appreciated.

Additionally, there is undoubtedly considerable resentment that Brexit was "imposed" on Scotland and in an extreme form. There is a similar feeling in London and amongst young English people, but they do not have the possibility of breaking away from the rest of the UK and the dominant mood, unlike in Scotland, is one of resignation.

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In Scotland, the issue of Brexit is especially fraught. The case for voting against Scottish independence in 2014 was that membership of the UK offered the benefits of both European and British union. Now, no longer. The potent slogan – ”take back control” – has passed to the SNP.

There is also a strong sense of Scottish identity, as opposed to British identity, which is reinforced under a Conservative government. The nearest thing to Scottishness in the Tory hierarchy are Michael Gove and Liam Fox who represent quintessentially English parts of the country (and were both strong Brexiteers).

Then, there is the lingering memory of the Thatcher era and a distaste for Conservative values that grate on Scots of a more social democratic disposition. The nearest thing the Tories had to someone who could dissolve the visceral hostility to the Conservatives in large parts of Scotland was Ruth Davidson, but she has largely disappeared from electoral politics.

The starting point for post-election politics in 2021 is that the SNP and its Green allies have a clear mandate for a new referendum but not – yet – for independence. I was struck this weekend - in phone calls to friends and family in Scotland - by one household of five which had voted for the SNP “to keep the Tories out” but will currently not vote for independence. There are large numbers of Scots who are not rabid nationalists or unionists and who are waiting to be persuaded one way or the other.

Nothing much will happen for six months or a year, as the UK and Scottish governments are agreed on the need to complete the battle against Covid-19 and revive the economy. But then, the Scottish parliament will demand a referendum on independence.

The current expectation, based on Boris Johnson’s words (which admittedly don’t mean a great deal), is that the UK government will refuse. This will lead to a prolonged constitutional stand-off, legal battles and growing pressure on the SNP from its own supporters to launch an illegal Catalonian-style referendum followed by a UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence).

A protracted stand-off may however not be in the interests of the UK government. It will build up a legitimate Scottish grievance that London is not recognising democratic principles. The Union would no longer be based on consent but on coercion. It would provide the SNP government with a powerful cause to distract from poor administration in Scotland. It would feed English antipathy to Scotland in some quarters: the “good riddance” factor. And it would be a poor look abroad, where the government’s championing of the cause of self-determination for minorities in the former USSR and now in China, is not recognised at home.

Playing for time may simply be postponing the inevitable. By contrast, embracing the referendum and winning it could kill the independence movement indefinitely. Like the Parti Quebecois in Canada, the SNP would drift into irrelevance and the three unionist parties would re-emerge – hopefully refreshed and wiser – to offer Scots better devolved government as part of a more confident and better balanced Union.

Winning the referendum means exposing the big unanswered questions which have remained submerged as long as the SNP could concentrate single-mindedly on IndyRef2.

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How is it possible to avoid a “hard border” along Hadrian’s Wall if Scotland were to rejoin the EU without England? How will an independent Scotland cover its 8 per cent of GDP budget deficit without severe tax rises and deep cuts to valued public services? Will an independent Scotland use sterling, the Euro or the Scots pound as a currency? The answers will almost certainly alienate many current enthusiasts for independence.

Another, and arguably more important, task is to make a positive case for cooperation within the Union, looking at constitutional reform in a wider context. There is no shortage of good people or good ideas, provided the prime minister can widen his horizons beyond his tribe.

Gordon Brown is coming up with new approaches from a Scottish and UK perspective. There are wise heads to consult in Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and non-aligned ranks in the Lords and intelligent opposition leadership in Holyrood. Johnson should be talking to them.

Those with a smattering of Plantagenet history will recall that losing at Bannockburn was the beginning rather than the end of Edward II’s problems. His Queen turned against him, his lover was publicly hung, drawn and quartered in Wales and he himself died in a Yorkshire castle after an agonising encounter with a red hot poker.

If Boris Johnson gets the issue of the Union wrong, he will also end his days in political agony as the prime minister who “lost Scotland”.

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