Scotland was recently graced with a visit from the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, his second since not being elected to his post on a Brexit ticket by the Scots.
Neither the Scottish First Minister nor the Scottish Parliament were told of his visit but it was apparently to ‘save the Union’ by boasting, while holding two Orcadian crabs, that, during the pandemic, Scotland had benefited from the ‘might of the Union’. Yes, he actually used the word ‘might’! Presumably he meant the old Unionist trope that we in Scotland were ‘too wee, too poor and too stupid’ to run our own country – or too dumb to do what the UK did to tackle the aftermath of the pandemic and borrow money.
This panic visit (followed by some photo ops of non-descript Tory Ministers looking at Scottish cows the day after) was in fact triggered by a number of polls showing a consistent 54 per cent in favour of Scottish independence. This has come about through a number of factors, chief among them being that, since 1955, there is a general toxicity among Scottish voters towards Tories in general, and the Johnson ‘brand’ and his Government’s ideology in particular. In addition, the UK’s PM was humiliated because of his own rambling and obvious inadequacies in communicating a brief on the pandemic in a clear and compassionate manner compared to the stark opposite by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. In Scotland, 74% of people thought the First Minister was doing a good job in dealing with the pandemic whereas poor old Boris only got 12%. Nicola Sturgeon’s performance on a daily basis was described by one English commentator as “an oasis of sense in the fact-free desert of British politics”. The consistent rise in the Scottish independence vote can also be attributed to the fact that it is dawning on the Scots, on the cusp of being dragged out of the EU of which they had voted by 62% to remain a member, that they are being treated like a colony and that the 20-year old devolution settlement is in jeopardy.
Johnson on his day-long visit also had a plan to get rid of the six-month holder of the post of Scottish Conservative Leader in Scotland, Jackson Carlaw. Days later, Carlaw had to fall on his sgian dubh to give way to the Tory (Westminster) MP, Douglas Ross, known more for his skills as a football referee than as a political genius. Ross’s first remark on being shoed in as Leader was that it was written in official documents from the 2014 referendum that the referendum would be a once-in-a-generation event. The only official document was the Edinburgh Agreement binding the two signatories, the then PM of the UK and the First Minister of Scotland, to accept the result. There is no mention that this was a once in a lifetime event nor that further referenda could not eventuate. Professor Mark Elliott of the Chair of Public Law at Cambridge University actually wrote that “constitutional reform in the UK, far from being a once-in-a-generation set-piece event, is little more than an ongoing process, the flexibility of the constitution.…..rendering it a work in progress.”
That progress seems to have come to a grinding halt. Two examples. Kate Forbes, Scotland’s Finance Minister, has repeatedly asked Westminster (post-colonialist theorists, please note) to give the Scottish Parliament greater borrowing powers to, for example, continue the furlough scheme for workers after Westminster pulls the plug in October or to pay for ‘Green Growth’ in a post-Covid economy. The Scottish Parliament, Government, Glasgow City Council, and the Glasgow City-Centre Community Council have asked for powers to allow drug consumption rooms to be established to halt the toll of drug deaths in Scotland and connect drug users with health and social service staff. The answer from Westminster has been a firm, faux moralistic ‘No’, despite 61% of the Scottish people supporting them in a poll. They have been established in other European countries for decades and have had success also in countries like Canada. In other words, we are being told that we cannot innovate and the currently reserved powers are going to remain in Westminster’s grubby hands.
The worst blow to the ‘ongoing process of devolution’ is the power grab concocted by Westminster on leaving the EU. Johnson’s Government wants to construct a plan to protect ‘the integrity of the UK internal market’. Johnson, whose belief in democracy does not extend to the devolved Governments having power, has issued his decree. It is that, after the end of 2020 when the transitional phase of leaving the EU (most likely without a trade deal) is at an end and powers over fishing, agriculture and the environment come to the UK, he will establish a committee composed of his choice of political appointees to police the ‘internal market’. The committee will be able legally to veto legislation from the devolved Governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales if they thought that their new legislation worked against the ‘Internal Market’. Over a whole raft of issues, Westminster will be able to knock back Scottish legislation which differs from that of England and force us to lower our environmental and workplace practices. If it had been extant in the past few years, that would have meant that free tuition for Scottish students, minimum pricing of alcohol to tackle our drink problem and the introduction of a smoking ban before the rest of the UK, could have been halted by this unelected forum which will have even more real powers than that other unelected forum, the House of Lords.
This move makes it clear that Scotland cannot be itself, sculpting out of our harsh but beautiful landscape and the skills and ingenuity of our people, a green future and, post-Covid, building back better within our own idea of what our society as well as our trading and international relations should be like. If devolution is going to be undermined, then the Scots are left with no choice. The death-knell of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will have been sounded by a xenophobic English nationalism which will not tolerate diversity. So be it. Frankly, among the states of the world, it won’t be missed.
Dr Duncan MacLaren is an Adjunct Professor of Australian Catholic University, where he lectured in International Development Studies and Catholic Social Ethics, but writes in a personal capacity from Glasgow. He is a former Researcher and Press Officer for the Scottish National Party in the House of Commons and at Edinburgh headquarters, and served as Director of Caritas Scotland/SCIAF and as Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis in the Vatican. He is a lay member of the Dominican Order and was made a Knight Commander of St Gregory the Great in 2016 by Pope Francis.