Stephen Daisley

Boris Johnson must start taking Scexit seriously

Boris Johnson must start taking Scexit seriously
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Polls come and go and the YouGov survey showing support for Scottish independence at 51 per cent should be read with that in mind. The Nationalists have been ahead before and have fallen behind again. What Downing Street cannot take in its stride is this: five years since the Scottish referendum, and with the SNP government in Edinburgh plagued by crises in health and education, support for secession has not fallen away. The separatists still enjoy a solid base of support, around 45 per cent, which delivered them 47 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the general election. They lost the 2014 referendum 55 per cent to 45 per cent and have been inching forwards ever since. Nicola Sturgeon’s speech in Edinburgh this morning, pledging to step up campaigning for independence, is a reminder that Scottish nationalism has not gone away.

Brexit has been a gift to the SNP. Although it was a UK-wide vote, the Nationalists are able to cite the 62 per cent of Scots who voted Remain as proof that ‘Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against our will’. Scotland’s commitment to Brussels is a source of gushing admiration in London but what Guardian pundits and Labour MPs fail to grasp is that Scotland is not pro-EU, as such; it simply has a different national dynamic and channels its nationalism accordingly. Replace Brussels with Westminster and Boris with Sturgeon and you see that Brexit and Scexit are different articulations of the same ideas and impulses.

The Scottish nationalists, like the Eurosceptics, want sovereignty. Yes, some hate the English (more properly, it’s the British and Britishness they hate), just as some Brexiteers hate foreigners, but their goal is civic political sovereignty. They want to exercise this sovereignty within the EU — though their Europeanism is more instrumental than instinctive — while Brexiteers believe sovereignty can only be maximally exercised outside the community. The SNP’s strategy since coming to power at Holyrood in 2007 has been to hijack the institutions of devolution (helpfully put in place for them by Tony Blair) and use them to advance in stages towards secession. Defeat at the ballot box in 2014 was only really a setback because the party still controlled the Scottish Government and could use it to draw Scotland further away from the rest of the UK.

It is a strategy of sovereignty by stealth. Nicola Sturgeon used her speech today to tamp down calls from within her party for a wildcat referendum. You don’t need to do a Catalonia when you’re already much further down the road than the Catalans.

This week provided another example of this strategy. The Scottish Parliament Corporate Body, the non-partisan committee that runs Holyrood, voted unanimously to draw down the European flag that flies outside the parliament on Brexit Night. The Scottish Government, eyeing a chance to expand its already burgeoning independent foreign policy, held an unprecedented vote to direct the Corporate Body to leave the flag in place. Thanks to the SNP-Green majority, the European standard will continue flying over Holyrood. It might seem like a bit of harmless symbolism but it was another indication that the Scottish Government intends to continue asserting itself on matters reserved to Westminster.

Boris Johnson refused permission for another independence vote but Westminster’s permission counts for less and less these days. When Alex Salmond renamed the Scottish Executive ‘the Scottish Government’, David Cameron eventually came along and adopted the rebranding in statute. When the Scottish Government began issuing official statements on foreign affairs — calling for an arms embargo against Israel, telling Spain how to deal with Catalonia — Westminster shrugged. When Nicola Sturgeon made a speech at the French National Assembly attacking the UK Government on Brexit and pledging that ‘the Scottish Government is committed to the European Union’, Theresa May hardly seemed to notice. Nor is it just foreign policy. Domestically, the Nationalists, both through government and more widely through their capture of institutions, have accelerated the unBritaining of Scotland. That phenomenon is part of a longer historical trend but only became politically operational with devolution.

The Prime Minister’s thinking on Scotland is something of a mystery. Does he believe the Union has a future? What ideas does he have for making Scotland part of the ‘One Nation’ he talks about? Is he minded to grant another referendum if the Nationalists win a majority at next year’s Holyrood election? On the last point, the Scottish establishment, much of the London commentariat and even some in his own party will warn him of a ‘constitutional crisis’ if he does not. If he shares the traditional view that sovereignty in the UK resides with the Crown-in-Parliament under God, he will know that it is not possible to achieve a mandate for an independence referendum at a Holyrood poll. If he takes fright, as David Cameron did, and gives the Nationalists their plebiscite, he will be implicitly rejecting our conventions about sovereignty — not as improbable as it might seem for a man who got where he is by pitching the people against Parliament.

The result of a second independence referendum is impossible to predict but a victory for the Nationalists is not the remote possibility it seemed going into the last one. A vote for Scottish independence? Now, that would be a constitutional crisis, and one that could cripple Johnson’s premiership and undermine Brexit. The time it would consume — referendum campaigning, negotiating a Scexit deal, establishing customs and borders arrangements — would be as nothing compared to the uncertainty fostered. Who will be lining up to sign trade deals with the UK when a tenth of its population and a third of its land mass might not be there in a year or two? How firm will be the UK’s grip on its Security Council seat when it no longer has a naval base for its Trident submarines?

I don’t recommend that the Prime Minister panic over one poll. I recommend that he and his Government show some indication that they appreciate the nature and scope of the threat they face. This threat requires political, economic, cultural and institutional responses. It will not simply go away by pretending it isn’t there. Nor will buying off the Nationalists with more powers for Holyrood in fact buy them off. There is no third way here. The SNP wants independence and will continue to use Holyrood to gain it by stages until it can make it official in a referendum. The Prime Minister either has to reconcile himself to that eventuality or he has to grasp the thistle and reform Blair-Cameron devolution to reassert the primacy of Westminster and curtail the devolution creep that daily saps at UK sovereignty.

Scotland is not some distant dominion whose departure would change little. The sound of that door slamming would be heard most keenly not in Whitehall but in Cardiff and one half of Belfast. The Prime Minister is a student of history; he knows how ever-weakening union ends. He knows too that a prime minister’s legacy is set by the first line of his obituary. If he doesn’t start taking sovereignty seriously, his will begin: ‘Boris Johnson, the man who won an election and lost a country’.