Alex Massie

Boris Johnson’s Scotland trip is a gift to the SNP

Boris Johnson's Scotland trip is a gift to the SNP
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Boris Johnson is in Scotland today and once again this counts as news. This is intolerable to everyone. Intolerable to Unionists because a prime ministerial appearance in Scotland should be as routine as a prime ministerial appearance in the Cotswolds. It should not count as a newsworthy moment. And it is intolerable to Scottish nationalists because, well, because everything is intolerable to Scottish nationalists.

The Prime Minister’s visit can hardly be deemed 'essential travel' in the current circumstances even if it is also essential that Scotland never becomes a no-go area for Johnson or, indeed, other cabinet ministers. Making it seem such, chipping away at Johnson’s legitimacy, is one small front on the SNP’s long, attritional, struggle against the British state. Johnson, like his predecessor, should be understood as an alien, invasive species, very much not welcome north of the border. This must be resisted and so Boris Johnson must come to Scotland even if he also shouldn’t.

This is, if you will, all very '1314 And All That'. The Prime Minister is in a lose-lose situation when it comes to Scotland. The only thing worse than ignoring Scotland is paying it attention; a variation on the old Jewish joke about terrible food served in such small portions.

So, needless to say, the SNP are out in force this morning complaining that Johnson is north of the border even if they also, deep down, welcome his presence. For the Prime Minister’s unpopularity in Scotland is now of Agamemnon-amongst-the-Trojans proportions. The SNP consider him an asset and the 100 point difference between Johnson’s approval ratings and those enjoyed by Nicola Sturgeon suggest they have a point. As always, then, there is plenty of pretence and ample supplies of humbug available for everyone to enjoy.

And yet there is also this: the Union cannot be 'saved' by folk rushing up from London on a mission to 'save the Union'. There has been a lot of this lately and there will, I fear, be much more to come. So much saving is going on that it becomes possible the Union will be saved to death.

For it is possible for Unionists to talk themselves into greater difficulties than is necessary. The more you talk of Britain in crisis, the more that sense of crisis becomes the backdrop to everything else. It becomes the stage upon which all else is seen. That is a frame which suits the SNP much more than it suits Unionism. When Corporal Jones shouts 'Don’t panic!' you know panic is the order of the day and there has been a lot, perhaps too much, panicking lately.

From which it also follows that flag-hugging will not solve the problem. Slapping the Union flag on everything is a doomed policy and a counsel of such limited imagination it might as well just admit its despair.

How you talk, however, matters just as much as what you say. It is sensible to point out the impoverishment of the arguments advanced by the SNP but this is best done tactfully and some folk are ill-placed to do so anyway. Alas, Boris Johnson is one of those who cannot prosecute this case. For his own reasons, the Prime Minister must pretend — or perhaps even believe — that his Brexit deal with the EU is a tremendous victory. Britain will be well-placed to thrive and relations with its nearest neighbours will be improved, not damaged, by these new arrangements.

If that were true and if trade is to be as seamless, frictionless and as tariff-free as the Prime Minister pretends, trade between an independent Scotland and the rump UK (Scotland’s most important market) would be just as free and easy. If the Prime Minister is right, the costs of independence are lower than he claims.

But of course he is not right any more than Nicola Sturgeon is correct. She must argue that Boris’s trade deal with the EU is a disaster — an unpardonable folly, if you will — while also insisting that an independent Scotland would be in no way inconvenienced by trading with the UK on precisely those terms. This is nonsense. The kind of nonsense that can only be swallowed by those possessing advanced degrees in doublethink. But there you have it. Johnson and Sturgeon are each mistaken and neither is capable of being candid with the electorate.

In point of fact, there is little need for the Prime Minister to come to Scotland just now. For just as he and his government have made a better case for independence than anything Sturgeon has said in years, so the case for independence will be more thoroughly discredited by the SNP itself than by anything the Prime Minister, or any other Unionist, says or does.

The nationalists have already begun the process of doing so. For some time now they have declared that the 2014 independence referendum set a 'gold standard' for how these affairs should be conducted. It was exemplary. Now, however, the SNP flirts with a referendum process that, by diverging from the precedent set in 2014, cannot avoid being, at best, a second-rate affair.

That is the true significance of the party’s drift towards a 'Plan B' process that deals with problems by ignoring them. Thus the absence of a Section 30 order agreeing a plebiscite should not prevent the Scottish parliament from holding its own referendum. 'I want a legal referendum', Sturgeon says, even as her party plans for a vote that, by her own logic, cannot reach that standard. There is little need for her opponents to besmirch the independence cause when the nationalists will tarnish it themselves.

Theresa May’s suggestion that 'now is not the time' for a referendum implicitly allowed that such a time might yet arrive at some unknown point in the future. It was a holding line of limited strength but it still just about holds. It is not a long term solution but it remains the best Unionism can do just now and it will hold for so long as roughly half the Scottish population opposes a further plebiscite. For whereas everyone accepted in 2014 that it was right and seemly to put the question to the people, no such consensus is apparent now. And that matters because without that consensus there can be no consensual outcome either.

But if the nationalists wish to play silly buggers with their Plan B — to be followed by a Plan C — let them do so. Those advocating such a course should recognise that they undermine the credibility — and the legitimacy — of their cause.

To which end, I suspect Sturgeon has blundered by even flirting with such silliness. By doing so she diminishes her own seriousness and devalues the moral authority her forthcoming victory in May’s Holyrood elections would otherwise bring her. If she countenances a referendum she’d have considered illegal and substandard just two months ago, there is less need to engage with her at all, let alone on her terms.

But that is for the future, not just now. Right now, the Prime Minister urgently needs a crash-course in language skills. Someone, somewhere, must be capable of teaching him how to speak to Scotland. For there is much improvement needed and hitherto he has not been a diligent or conscientious student.

He’ll be at it again today. Mark my words. Or, rather, mark his. For Johnson will, as always, talk about the glories of the United Kingdom and all the support it has offered Scotland during this pandemic. There is the furlough scheme, of course, and there will be talk of the vaccine programme and the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom state and about how the army — now seemingly rebranded as the 'British army' — is supporting everything and it all shows how much better we are together.

Well, all of this could be true. It is possible to believe all of this in good faith while also recognising that it is a hopeless way of persuading those who need to be persuaded. For, implicitly, it asks them to believe that, perhaps uniquely, an independent Scotland would not have been capable of organising an employment support scheme or purchasing vaccines (albeit perhaps not as promptly as the UK has managed) or having soldiers to help set up vaccination centres or anything else. How have other countries coped without being part of the Prime Minister’s 'awesome foursome'?

Moreover, this boosterism seems misplaced after a year in which the British government and, indeed, the British state has not, on the whole, played a blinder. This may not be an ideal moment to suggest we all hold winning tickets in life’s lottery. 'Cheer-up Jocko, and count your blessings' is a bold gambit right now. Yet that, again implicitly, is what the Prime Minister demands we do.

I am unconvinced that even in the best of times people like being told they are lucky but I’m mildly sure they dislike it during the worst of times. Once again, the Prime Minister should really watch his tone. If he remains a poor messenger he could at least do something to improve the message he delivers.

In the longer-run that is not sufficient either, of course, for Unionism needs a plan or a vision for 2031 much more urgently than it requires one for 2021. That’s for the future however and, for the time being, avoiding the scoring of own goals is about as good as one may hope for. This is an insufficient ambition, of course, but it remains a necessary first step.