There is a lot of pearl-clutching over Liz Truss’s dismissive remarks about Nicola Sturgeon. Much of it involves conflating a dig at the leader of the SNP with a grave insult to Scotland. This is symptomatic not only of the fetid culture of grievance that permeates Scottish politics but of the steady merging of the party of government and the state itself. Were Emmanuel Macron to brand Boris Johnson an ‘attention seeker’, these same guardians of the public discourse would scoff at the suggestion it represented a slight against the British people. In fact, they would regard anyone proposing such an interpretation as a hysterical ideologue and perhaps even a jingoist.
The difference is that Boris Johnson isn’t regarded as a semi-monarchical figure. He and his government are robustly scrutinised. He is treated as what he is: just another politician. Nicola Sturgeon is just another politician and neither criticisms nor insults directed at her are reflections on Scotland or its people. She is not the custodian of our national honour. L'État n'est pas Nicola.
She is also not new to this game. This lark would be mildly less silly if it weren’t in aid of the most ruthless political operator since Harold Wilson. Sturgeon is tougher than any Westminster fixer, strategist or power-broker you care to name.
Of course, the contention here is that Truss’s remarks are bad optics. Not a good look: it'll play into the hands of the SNP.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Truss's critics are right. Let's say that her barb at the leader of a rival political party undermines Tory efforts to defend the Union or encourages more people to support secession.
Do you have any idea how mad that sounds? A fairly mild bit of partisan rhetoric is enough to imperil the future existence of the UK? How many other countries in the world operate on this basis? The Biden White House isn't shy about taking shots at Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis. No one warned it could lead to Floridian independence. Former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison berated state premiers for keeping Covid restrictions in place too long. Yet I can report that western Australia remains very much part of Australia. Then again, these are serious countries that believe in themselves and don’t allow their nation state to be held continually to ransom by separatist malcontents.
In freaking over Truss’s remarks, nationalists and devolutionists make my own argument for me. I say the flaws in the devolution settlement have allowed the SNP to transform the Scottish government, an institution of the UK state, into a permanent campaign to dismantle that state. I say allowing devolution to continue unreformed will eventually lead to the Union’s demise.
They say it’s so much worse than that. They say that, a quarter-century into the devolution experiment, the Union is so fragile that Westminster politicians must constantly walk on eggshells around a political opponent whose entire career and premiership is founded on demonising Westminster. I’m not convinced that’s true but I’m happy to concede the point and move on to debating the appropriate legislative remedies to strengthen the Union against this threat.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think politicians should insult or dismiss their opponents. They all do, of course, but it lowers the tone of political debate and fails to reach for a higher, more noble spirit of leadership. All the same, the primary objection to Truss’s comments is not that they were rude or inelegant or strategically unwise, but that they were wrong. You can’t just ignore Nicola Sturgeon. She is the head of the Scottish devolution industry, an enterprise foolishly set up by New Labour and recklessly expanded by the Tories. She sits at the apex of one of the most powerful non-sovereign political settlements in the West.
New Labour pledged that devolution would mean ‘the Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed’. In fact, devolution has handed the SNP its own proto-state from which to attack and undermine the UK state. It seems not to matter that this was not the purpose of devolution, that the Scottish government was not set up to pursue independence in defiance of the British parliament, that Holyrood was established in the name of subsidiarity, not separatism.
Successive prime ministers have sat back and allowed the institutions of devolution to be hijacked and marshalled into the service of a cause hostile to the United Kingdom. Why have they done so? Because the alternative would involve confronting the SNP, legislating to tighten up the devolution settlement, and otherwise asserting Westminster’s authority. And that would be, well, bad optics. Not a good look. Would play into the hands of the SNP.
As I wrote on Coffee House on Monday, Liz Truss says some of the right things about the Union but then so did Boris Johnson and so did Theresa May. The time for saying things is long since over. The next prime minister needs to be prepared to do something about the threat posed to the Union by an unreformed devolution system that has been turned into a battering ram against the UK. Continuing to ramp up the rhetoric without a plan to do things differently is the definition of an attention seeker and of a candidate best ignored.