When he assumed the Office of Prime Minister, Boris Johnson also took upon himself the responsibility of being, he said, 'Minister for the Union'. Whatever you may feel about the manner in which he has performed as First Lord of the Treasury, his record in his other post has been miserable. So much so, indeed, that it is evident Johnson is as great a threat to the Union as Nicola Sturgeon.
That is not merely my view, it is the view of an increasing number of Scottish Tories. And, still more relevant, the view of the Scottish people themselves. Fewer than one in five voters in Scotland are impressed by Johnson’s performance. It is hard to banish the thought that some of these plucky few must be diehard independence supporters who can identify a significant asset when they see one.
The most important speech at the recent Tory conference was given by Douglas Ross, the new leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. He noted — as many others have on many other occasions — that the case for independence is now being more strongly made in London than in Edinburgh. Whatever Scotland’s own problems and shortcomings — and these are many and significant — the United Kingdom is becoming a leading example of what not to do. Independence would be expensive and much else besides, but the new state would not have to be very good to be a little bit better than the one it left behind. Such are the wages of mismanagement.
And so, today, Ipsos-MORI complete the set of leading pollsters reporting there is, for now at least, a majority in favour of independence. Their poll finds that support for independence has never been higher. 58 per cent of Scots say they would vote yes if there were a second referendum and just 42 per cent would vote no. If this is an outlier amongst recent polls, it still confirms the trend towards yes.
This is not just about Covid, either, though that is unavoidably part of it. The Scottish government has not done very well these past few months but it is held to a different, lower, standard than the UK government. Unionists may gurn that this is unfair but that’s the way it is. The UK government must do better than the Scottish government just to be seen to be doing just as well. But it has not been doing very well at all, has it?
Fairness demands we allow that it is not just about Johnson either, though making him Prime Minister acted as a fire accelerant. This was not only predictable, it was predicted, not least in some of these pages. If you wished to create a prime minister to make Scottish independence more popular, you could hardly create a more perfect monster than Johnson.
His own protestations of Unionism are laughably hollow. Time and again, Tory ministers have promised a 'Union unit' in Downing Street or some other fresh contrivance that would put the Union 'at the heart' of all government decision-making. Nothing would be done without first considering its impact on the future of the Union. Which, some people need reminding, is not an abstract question but rather one upon which the future survival of the United Kingdom depends. Repetition of these comforting bromides, however, has done nothing to diminish the suspicion that that is all they are. Platitudes mouthed by a government just smart enough to know it has to be seen to do something but stupid enough to think a performative demonstration of Union-thinking is a happy substitute for actually living up to the promises the government has made itself.
It is not enough and the proof lies in the government’s own actions. For no ministry that actually cared about the United Kingdom’s long-term integrity would behave as this ministry has done. The recklessness would be breathtaking if it were not for the suspicion that it is, in fact, a product of scandalous indifference. Time and again, I have been told that the government 'gets it', that henceforth it will be paying attention, and every time this is revealed as a worthless commitment that doesn’t even rise to the level of a promise.
My postbag confirms the impact of this. Each week, and sometimes more frequently than that, I hear from people who never had to think about their no vote in 2014 but now find themselves contemplating their preferences should there be a second plebiscite on independence. Many of them would still vote no, but with markedly less enthusiasm than before; others suggest they are too depressed to vote at all; some find themselves surprised, and perhaps even a little alarmed, to discover they can imagine voting yes. Some have already changed their mind, deciding getting out is the only realistic way forward. These are company directors, farmers, lawyers, academics and if Boris Johnson is losing people like this — folk with plenty to lose from independence — then you may imagine how he’s faring with other kinds of voter.
No wonder it is now possible to find Scottish Tory politicians who will sigh as they pour themselves a late-night Laphroaig and confess that, miserably, it’s all over. Pessimism has always been an important part of the Tory sensibility but, right now, this pessimism is warranted. It is so even if the SNP is still unable to answer important but basic questions about the realities of independence. The first decade of the new state’s life would be astringent to say the least. But then the last ten years have been pretty ropey ones for the UK and that colours people’s views too.
For nearly a decade now, politicians and media figures in London have persistently underestimated both the appeal of independence and its possibility. It has been put in a box marked ‘unthinkable’ and so it need not be thought about. This complacency, this lack of imagination, has always been a significant problem for Unionism and yet, despite the obvious evidence before them, few Tory politicians have shown themselves prepared to grasp reality, let alone grapple with it.
Flag-waving is not the answer. Competent government in London and a prosperous United Kingdom is the best available response to this challenge. For a long, long time, independence has been a nice idea. If all other things were equal it would even be an attractive one. But all other things have never, quite, been equal and so the risks of independence have always been considered greater than the risks of Union. It might have some advantages but these would come at too high a cost.
Well, that calculation of risk and reward is changing. There has never been a time when 'all things' have ever looked so equal. That has certain obvious consequences and the opinion polls are merely reporting what is obvious on the ground.
For this is a three-legged crisis for Unionism. Covid is one leg and Johnson is another but the third, and most significant, leg is Brexit. It cannot be repeated too frequently that Brexit is the sole reason this argument has substance right now. No Brexit, no material change in circumstances that might justify revisiting the national question while the embers of 2014 still glow. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP would still campaign for independence but they wouldn’t have any good argument for demanding a second referendum. Well, however disagreeable you may think it, they have a decent one now. (It remains decent even if you also think 'once in a generation' should mean something too.)
Once Brexit was pursued, and especially once it was decided to pursue it at all or any cost, some of this crisis became inevitable. For Brexit must happen even though two parts of the United Kingdom — Scotland and Northern Ireland — voted against it. But the manner in which Brexit is happening, with little regard for those who rejected it and still less interest in the privileges enjoyed by the devolved administrations, is placing the Union under renewed strain.
The detail is less important than the sentiment. Few people, I suspect, are truly exercised by the internal workings of the withdrawal agreement or, indeed, by the precise manner in which the Internal Market Bill may or may not impinge upon the devolved parliaments. But, to put it in architectural terms, they do care about the look of the post-Brexit house the government intends to build.
Perhaps this is a blip or a phase or just a passing flirtation. I would prefer it if this were the case but the numbers strongly suggest it is not.
Even now, most politicians at Westminster — and especially most so-called Conservative ones — do not get it. You might think the survival of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should be considered a modestly important issue but plainly very few Tories at Westminster really think it is. So Douglas Ross was right to lambast his colleagues and it was miserably revealing that his speech received so little attention.
As he argued, correctly, if so-called Unionists do not care about the Union and if they mistakenly believe independence would come at little cost — psychological as well as civic — to England then they are both deluding themselves and helping to make the case for that independence. With friends like these, who needs the SNP?
There is something melancholy about all of this and a keening sense of Scottish Unionists being, as I have observed before, abandoned by the people they mistakenly considered their co-religionists. Verily, what do they know of the United Kingdom, who only England know?
Boris, Brexit and Covid is a combination of potent toxicity. Any two of those would have been dangerous; adding the third ingredient may prove lethal. If the United Kingdom dies, it may not do so on Boris Johnson’s watch but the conditions for its demise will have been created during his hapless spell at the helm.
Minister for the Union? What larks, eh?