Boris Johnson’s comments about devolution having been a ‘disaster’ were not entirely wrong: it is hard to point to a problem devolution has solved. But given the popular support for devolution, it was a mistake for Johnson to say this out loud, I say in the magazine this week. The comment was a gift to Scottish Nationalists who will now claim that Scots must vote for independence to stop Westminster from taking away their parliament.
Given that the SNP could deprive him of his premiership — and end this 300-year-old Union — Johnson must learn how his words will be interpreted north of the border. His enemies seek to portray him as a blundering, aloof Old Etonian who embodies a dysfunctional UK government. He mustn’t give them the ammunition to do so. One Scottish Tory warns:
‘We need attention on this more than anything. This crisis is coming in May'.
That is when the Nationalists will almost certainly win a majority in the Holyrood elections and then request another independence referendum. In the short term, any demand for a referendum next year can be reasonably rejected on the basis that the focus should be on rebuilding post Covid. Longer term, the Union needs to change to help keep Scotland in it.
The question that elicited Johnson’s ‘disaster’ comment contained part of the answer: there should be more devolution to the English regions. This might seem an odd response to the question of what to do about Scotland, but it could pave the way for a more federal UK. ‘It has got to be about the UK changing, not just more powers for Scotland,’ one thoughtful Unionist tells me.
At the same time, Downing Street must think more about Scotland. Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, often seems to be on the attack. He used his Tory conference speech to say that too many in the party treat the Union as an ‘afterthought’ and hit out at the rise of English nationalism in its ranks.
‘The case for separation,’ he said, ‘is being made more effectively in London than it could ever be in Edinburgh.’ One can debate the wisdom of a Tory saying all this publicly — ‘if we’re trying to out-oppose the opposition, then we’re in the worst of all possible worlds’, as one furious Secretary of State puts it — but Ross’s comments did have the ring of truth about them.