In 2015, David Cameron set up a Commission headed by a Tory Scottish banker-businessman, Lord Smith of Kelvin, now Chancellor of the University of Strathclyde, and a very grand Scot indeed, to advise on how Scotland should be handled in the aftermath of the No vote in #Indyref1 in 2014.
Smith made clear: “Nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”
The Scottish people will make a choice on Super-Thursday next May when elections to Holyrood, for mayors of the big city regions of England, and 140 local councils take place.
Sitting in London and patrolling Labour Party politics, the Scottish question does not exist. A few leftover Scottish journalists still pemitted to write for major London papers occasionally discuss it but Scotland is now a foreign country for the English political-media elites.
They are wrong. If Lord North lost America, and David Cameron lost Europe, does Boris Johnson want to enter history as the prime minister who lost Scotland, and with it the United Kingdom?
In the 1950s, the majority of Scottish MPs were Conservative or perhaps more accurately Unionist and until recently big beastie Scots sat in Tory cabinets. No longer. Johnson’s Tory party is completely English. The many Scots who live in England tend to do so in big cities where Labour MPs predominate but the bulk of seats that give Johnson his majority have relatively few Scots.
The de-Scottishisation/de-Scotification of the UK’s political, administrative and media elites has happened very fast. Only a decade ago the prime minister, top ministers, including Tories like Liam Fox, were Scots as were LibDem leaders like Charlie Kennedy and Ming Campbell. The BBC and top newspaper journalists were often Scots. But now other than an Andrew Marr, a most Anglicised Scot, and the ever grumpy and opinionated right-winger, Andrew Neil, 71, it is closing time for Scots in London media circles.
The one exception is Michael Gove, from Aberdeen, who did a stint on the P&J and even stood on an NUJ picket line during a journalists’ strike there after Oxford before heading south to make his name as Tory anti-European rightist.
Gove is the only one of Johnson’s so-called “nodding dog” cabinet who can think for himself. He is now getting worried about the future of the Union. In a briefing to the Sunday Times’ assiduous political editor, Tim Shipman, he expressed concern that a very hard Brexit which would deny to all Scots even the last vestiges of a relationship with Europe would strengthen the SNP vote next May.
And the others?
Gove is almost certainly right. Sir Keir Starmer’s Europe policy of “See No Brexit. Hear No Brexit. Speak no Brexit” has the merit of calming down the Corbyn era divisions in Labour on how to handle Brexit but throws all the responsibility for the nature of the divorce from Europe onto Johnson’s shoulders.
The LibDems for the time being are not in play with their one-time Scots leader, Jo Swinson, losing her Commons seat after her disastrous decision to fall into Johnson’s trap a year ago and give him the election he craved.
The surreal Scottish holiday in which an exhausted looking prime minister far from his normal summer holiday haunts of Russian oligarchs’ Italian villas tried to pretend he was enjoying the winds and wet of a Scottish coastal holiday clutching his new baby son to his chest as cover was Johnson’s message that he loved Scotland and did not want to lose the union.
It is doubtful if it will work. The Tories have no (real) leader in Scotland since the redoubtable Ruth Davidson retired to look after her own new baby (with a seat in the Lords). She paid, at best, lip service to the southern UKIP-Tory idea of Brexit and if she is in touch with Johnson must surely have told him a crash out Brexit will massively strengthen the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon’s position and encourage a vote that restores Scotland to its status as a European nation.
Where is Labour?
Labour is little better with just one MP, Ian Murray, in Edinburgh who bravely battles the über-nationalist Scots but has no support from Labour in the south. Labour’s leader in Scotland, a Yorkshireman, is openly and publicly criticised and Labour is unlikely to score well in the Holyrood vote next May.
Labour drained all its best talent to London to fashion the New Labour project after 1990 – Brown, Cook, Darling, Dewar, Reid, Liddell, Alexander, McFadden – and never replaced them. In terms of party management it was a disastrous decision as Labour had no theory, no policy, no personnel to occupy and keep a leading position in post-devolution Scotland.
In logical terms, the SNP position is untenable. It is an Hibernian UKIP line. UKIP-Tory nationalists say let us break the union with Europe but keep the union with England. Scottish nationalists say let us break the union with England but have the union with Europe. In the past, this would have found few takers in EU capitals. But now, after Brexit and the move to a hard Brexit that won Johnson Downing Street, most of Europe could tuck in a mature, well-educated, honestly administered, social market economy in north-western Europe.
Much of Labour and the London intelligentsia have allowed the SNP a free run, seeing Scotland as a political battering ram against Old Etonian Tories south of the border. There has been no serious Labour thinking or policy on Scotland since 2000. Journalists like John Lloyd and Brian Wilson or e- Labour MPs like Calum Macdonald have denounced SNP nationalism but, eloquent as their interventions are, Labour under any of its leaders since 2000 has preferred to stay under the duvet on the Scottish question, including the latest leader. Despite his Scottish first name there is no evidence that Starmer has much idea of how to shape a Scottish policy that is intellectually coherent and can lure back voters from the all-things-to-all-Scots SNP.
No deal Brexit
Where Johnson is weak is his insistence on a hard, possibly No Deal, Brexit. But Labour under both Corbyn and Starmer have refused to challenge the Tories on Brexit save to utter platitudes about a jobs-first or workers-friendly Brexit whatever that might mean.
Scots when they voted in 2015, (general election); 2016 (Brexit plebiscite); 2017 (general election); and 2019 (European Parliament and general elections) made clear they opposed having their rights to be European citizens removed and Scotland marginalised as an attachment to an England controlled by elite xenophobic Tories who fawningly regard Trump’s populist divisive style of running America as a model for the UK.
No other state made up of different national entities has had such a sequence of nationwide votes in which a national region has repudiated in vote after vote the main policy of the overall ruling elite – namely a rupture with immediate neighbours and main trading partners plus the abolition of the existing right to work, live, retire in the wider European hinterland without let or hindrance.
If Johnson insists on an amputational Brexit, Scots will vote again next May to repudiate English rule over Scotland and the de-Europeanisation of Scotland for the pleasure of UKIP, the BNP and the English nationalist press in London.
If, on the other hand, Johnson temporises and opts for further negotiations to arrive at a moderate Brexit like the one he promised four years ago when he wrote in the Daily Telegraph that British people would continue to trade with Europe, have access to the single market and keep their rights to live, work and settle in Europe then he may buy himself time to save the union.
This may also buy time for other non-nationalist political forces in Scotland who believe in both the union with England and the union with Europe to find some new voices, some new energy, some new leaders to challenge the monolithic nationalism and anti-English populism of the SNP.
As on the main question of Europe, the question of Scotland and the rest of the UK depends on what is happening inside Johnson’s head. Cabinet government is dead. The Commons is a shadow of what it should be. The Labour opposition has yet to recover from the disastrous Corbyn years 2015-2019.
Nicola Sturgeon and the other no longer young SNP nationalists are in a hurry. They need Johnson to confirm that his English Europe-hating Tories will indeed deny Scotland its centuries-old place as a small but distinct European nation that has contributed much to European science, philosophy, and culture.
The SNP need a hard Brexit and a major crisis from January 2021 onwards. Will Johnson, an English nationalist, give his Scottish soul-brothers and sisters what they want?