Every so often I make the mistake of thinking Boris Johnson must have exhausted his capacity for indolent carelessness and each time I do he pops up to remind me not to count him out. There are always fresh depths to which he may sink. For he is a Prime Minister who knows little and cares less that he knows so little. In happy times of placid prosperity this might be inconvenient but tolerable; these are not such times.
Speaking to his northern English MPs last night, Johnson declared that devolution has been 'a disaster north of the border' and was the biggest mistake Tony Blair ever made. The implication, quite obviously, is that in a better ordered world the Scottish parliament should be abolished. It is difficult to think how Johnson could more usefully have done Nicola Sturgeon’s work for her. For this is how this talk will be understood: Pipe down Scotland.
This morning, sundry senior figures in the government doubled down on this nonsense. Maybe devolution is not the problem; it’s just that it is being 'misused' by the SNP. The wrong people keep winning elections. Enthusiasts for irony will note this is the same argument promulgated by the SNP: Britain is a disaster, in part because the wrong people keep winning elections. Arguing that devolution has failed because Nicola Sturgeon is first minister is the same as arguing that Britain has failed because Boris Johnson is Prime Minister. Sometimes you wonder if these people deserve each other. A rotten government in Edinburgh no more makes devolution a disaster than Johnson proves the Union’s bankruptcy. (The answer, in each case, is to elect a better government.)
Be that as it may, people like to keep their politicians close. You might think a Brexiteer could understand this. According to the latest edition of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey – a gold-standard piece of research – 61 per cent of people said they trust the Scottish government to work in the national interest; just 15 per cent trust the UK government to do likewise.
Nor is this merely a reflection of the SNP’s dominance of the Scottish political scene. Nearly two thirds of Labour supporters trust the Scottish government to work in Scotland’s interests and even, perhaps remarkably, a third of Scottish Conservative voters do too.
If that is worth a raised eyebrow, so is the research indicating that whereas in 2015 one in three No voters trusted the UK government to advance the Scottish interest, in 2019 barely one in four Unionists are prepared to do so. At the same time, half of Tory voters in Scotland think the parliament gives Scotland a greater voice within the UK.
So I do wish someone could offer the Prime Minister a course in what is still relatively recent British political history. Tony Blair was no great enthusiast for Scottish devolution but he recognised that he had no alternative but to proceed with it. For it was not just the policy of the Scottish Labour party it had become, in the words of the late John Smith, 'the settled will of the Scottish people'. Blair’s decision to subject devolution to a referendum was denounced by many of the scheme’s supporters but it had the advantage of putting the issue beyond doubt. 74 per cent of voters endorsed the creation of a Scottish parliament and 63 per cent agreed it should have tax-raising powers. Blair did not force devolution through; it was forced upon him.
If voters do not feel that devolution has always lived up to the extravagant promises made for it, that does not translate into any great desire to see it abolished. There is a devo-sceptic vote but it is small (and much of it cannot, in any case, be bothered to vote at Holyrood elections). One might argue that the SNP are also devo-sceptics in as much as their preferred outcome is also inherently hostile to devolution but this is, in the end, a too-clever-for-its-own-good argument that convinces no-one. The SNP are against half a loaf because they want a whole one; Tory devo-critics think half a loaf the thin end of the wedge. There is a difference between these positions.
Within the UK, there is no viable alternative to devolution. The parliament, like it or not, is not going anywhere. Nor should it. The Scottish Tories spent the first dozen years of its existence apologising and trying to make up for their previous opposition to the project. That opposition might have been principled and you might even claim it has been vindicated by subsequent events but it was, in the end, a lonely ditch in which to choose to perish. The people, whatever you may think of them, disagreed. And devolution has been a success in as much as it is now a part of the constitutional architecture. Only fools think it can be rolled-back. The UK has always been a hybrid state; a multinational polity that is four countries and one all at the same time. That makes it unusual and, evidently, too confusing for some.
Reactionaries may find it thrilling to stand athwart history shouting ‘No’ but the essence of Toryism is to accept that times change and, this being so, resolve to bend with them. Only then can the truly important, permanent, things be protected. It is typical of Boris Johnson that he should be so very careless about this.
Making devolution ‘work better’ is a wholly reasonable aspiration for Scottish Unionists. That cannot be achieved if the Prime Minister – a man who laughably styles himself ‘Minister for the Union’ – bumbles around the place arguing devolution is a 'disaster'. Characteristically, devolution is fine for London – where it proved useful to Johnson – but deplorable elsewhere. You can add shameless hypocrite to the charge sheet should you feel this lengthy document could do with some extra padding.
I happen to think that enthusiasm for the idea of devolution – or of what it might be – is rather greater than for what devolution has actually delivered. There have, of course, been some achievements; how could there not be in 20 years? But among the greatest may be the extent to which the parliament itself has taken root. We might not like it enough to vote in its elections (turnout tends to be around 50-55 per cent of eligible voters) but we like the idea of it being there anyway. And it is hard not to notice that, after decades in which more Scots moved to England than people from elsewhere in the UK moved to Scotland, that pattern has been reversed since 1999. More folk have moved to Scotland than have left it. That suggests something useful has been happening.
From which it follows that arguing devolution has 'been a disaster' is arguing that the Scottish people are idiots. Even if true, this would be something better left unsaid or unimplied. The parliament may be but a wee thing but it is our small legislature and that makes all the difference. A subtler politician than Boris Johnson would struggle to decouple criticism of Holyrood from a wider, but keenly felt, sense he was insulting Scotland itself. And Boris Johnson is not a subtle politician.
Then again, he’s not much of a politician either. Instead he is something close to a calamity that’s not so very funny anymore. There is a 100 point gap between Nicola Sturgeon’s approval ratings in Scotland and the Prime Minister’s and that is the good news for Johnson since I suspect he has not yet reached rock bottom in Scotland. As Douglas Ross told STV recently, 'You can’t say that the people of Scotland are absolutely wrong' about Johnson and Sturgeon just as you can’t deny the reality of the polling numbers.
Ross is trying to hold a thin blue line against the SNP and at every turn he is sabotaged and undermined and betrayed by the Prime Minister. If it weren’t actually a serious matter it might be worth a gallows chuckle or two. It is, after all, only the future survival of the United Kingdom that is at stake.
Although it has received little attention, Ross has actually recently been making some interesting suggestions. He suggests that the devolved administrations should be able to have some control over immigration to their territories; a one-size fits all UK immigration policy that does not actually fit all sizes needs to be capable of some flexibility.
Still more daringly, the Scottish Tory leader has argued that since the devolved parliaments will be impacted by any post-Brexit trade deals, they should have some input into them. This is a quietly radical departure but one which recognises the changed nature of the United Kingdom. It is obviously doomed.
It is not just a question of policy but of tone too. Tone may even be more important than policy. The SNP could be a collection of incompetent halfwits but everyone recognises that, albeit in their own peculiar way, they want what they think is best for Scotland. It is not so easy to say that Boris Johnson wants the same. And if he is considered suspect then, fairly or not, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party will be considered suspect too. Johnson almost certainly cannot win in Scotland anyway but he can, or should, at least not make matters worse. It shouldn’t feel as though that is akin to asking the impossible and yet, yes, it does.
Conservatism tends to do best in Scotland when it cloaks itself in the traditions of Unionist-Nationalism. That too is a large ask in the present climate and it might not be enough in any case but it is the best card, the best tradition, the Tories have. That requires respecting, even honouring, Scottish institutions not considering them a 'disaster'; it means insisting upon a distinct Scottish interest the furtherance of which is best achieved by voting for Conservative & Unionist candidates. Nothing is more fatal to Tory prospects north of the border than the suspicion the party neither knows, nor cares for, the country. Yet that is the impression given by this Prime Minister; a man who appears determined to do the SNP’s work for it and to do so unpaid to boot.
Johnson’s comments will be flung at Douglas Ross and the Tories every day between now and the Holyrood elections in May. Ross can protest he takes a different view – and he does – but what use is that when the Prime Minister is the bigger banana in the room? At best, Ross is made to look a chump; more likely he’ll be seen as the organ-grinder’s monkey. That is not a great place from which to start.
Independence is by no means inevitable and it remains possible that the United Kingdom can recover to the extent it actually has a long-term and viable future. That will not be possible while Boris Johnson remains Prime Minister, however. He is a clear and present danger to the country he purports to lead; a poison whose ignorance, carelessness, and indifference promises gotterdammerung and the destruction of the United Kingdom itself. That might seem a fitting legacy for this hapless premier but it remains an undesirable one. Perhaps it will not happen on his watch, but if it happens one day anyway the conditions for it happening will have been helped along by Boris Johnson.
One day, perhaps, even English Tories will appreciate that Scotland is the United Kingdom’s indispensable nation but it may, by then, be too late. For the past four years, many English Tories have made it clear they privilege Brexit over the survival of the United Kingdom. That is their prerogative but they should not be surprised if pursuing it has consequences. So be it, you may feel but while the John Wilkes tendency palpably evident on the Ukip-Tory right may know the price of Union they have little appreciation of its value. It is fine to be in bed with an elephant – the situation in which Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, find themselves – but that requires the elephant to behave itself. Sometimes you do not know what you’ve lost until it’s gone and if that’s true for Scotland in its current mood, it might one day be true for England as well.
The SNP do not have many good answers on many of the detailed, practical, questions that come with independence but as matters stand they do not need them. For politics is not just about detail; it is also a question of attitude and emotion. Here too, Johnson is found miserably wanting in Scotland. He is a disaster. A foreseeable disaster, perhaps, but a greater calamity than even those of us who suspected he’d be no good could have suspected. If he was twice as capable, he’d still be only half as good as a Prime Minister should be. This is the fundamental reality that, once understood, explains all else: the Prime Minister is a liability on a good day and he doesn’t have many good days.