Boris Must Tread Lightly on the Scottish Question

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London, England, January 8, 2020 (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)
If preserving the union is his priority, the British prime minister should handle the fraught politics of independence with the delicacy they demand.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the wrath of the Scots. In rain and high winds, tens of thousands took to the streets of Glasgow last week to demand another independence referendum. Though Scots voted against independence in 2014, the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party swept up 47 of the 59 seats in December’s general election. Some argue that the SNP’s landslide qualifies as a democratic mandate. And if the party does just as well in the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021, this claim will be harder to deny.

At the moment, however, there’s just a lot of bluster. After December’s elections, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and the leader of the SNP, wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson demanding that he allow a transfer of powers regarding independence referendums from the British parliament to the Scottish parliament. Of course, in practical terms, this wasn’t a demand as much as a request for permission to organize and hold another referendum without London’s input. Johnson’s answer was predictable. “You and your predecessor made a personal promise that the 2014 Independence Referendum was a ‘once in a generation’ vote,” he wrote in a brief official response. “The UK Government will continue to uphold the democratic decision of the Scottish people and the promise that you made to them.”

Johnson’s letter also argued that “another independence referendum would continue the political stagnation that Scotland has seen for the last decade, with Scottish schools, hospitals and jobs again left behind because of a campaign to separate the UK.” This was a passive-aggressive way of telling Sturgeon to stop agitating for independence and get on with the business of governing Scotland. But the SNP’s poor record at home is all the more reason, politically, for Sturgeon to want to unite Scots against a common enemy — in this case the English, and the Tories in particular.

In other words, Johnson had given Sturgeon an opening, and she took it. She replied by saying that Johnson’s refusal of her request “will not stand” and that it “is not politically sustainable for any Westminster government to stand in the way of the right of the people of Scotland to decide their own future.” She has a point. While SNP parliamentarians who call Johnson a “dictator” might seem risible to those south of the border, in Scotland such talk touches a nerve. It would be unwise for the Tories to underestimate the historic anti-English sentiment that prevails among Scots. If Johnson is to fight Sturgeon on the question of independence, he must do so with diplomacy and — where necessary — concessions.

There is a historical precedent for the current moment of political discomfort in Scotland. In June of 1987, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party had won another landslide majority in the U.K., but only ten out of 72 seats in Scotland. To many Scots, this indicated something of a democratic deficit. Scotland had voted overwhelmingly for Labour and yet was being represented by Tories. In 1989, David McLetchie, a Scottish Conservative MP, said: “I believe that the perception of the Conservatives as an English-based and English-run party is the biggest single factor in our current standing in Scotland. In my experience, all Scots are nationalists with a small ‘n’ at heart and we have ignored this at our peril.”

Yet ignore it, they did. Some say that it was the strength of Scottish resentment that helped pave the way for the devolution of powers with the founding of the Scottish parliament at Holyrood in 1999. In 2000, Donald Dewar, Scotland’s inaugural first minister, gave a lecture at Trinity College Dublin in which he rebutted the idea that he was the “Father of the Scottish Parliament.” He explained that there was no father, only a mother: Margaret Thatcher. Sturgeon herself has said that “Thatcher was the motivation for my entire political career. I hated everything she stood for.” The sociologist Tony Dickson wrote in 1988:

The public persona of Mrs. Thatcher appears to many Scots to capture all the worst elements of their caricature of the detested English — uncaring, arrogant, always convinced of their own rightness (‘there is no alternative’) [and] possessed of an accent that grates on Scottish ears.

If he is not careful, Johnson could become a similar kind of cartoon villain to Scots — and pave the way for independence.


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