WHAT DOES BORIS JOHNSON think he’s doing in Scotland? In theory, the answer should be simple: the Scottish Conservatives are struggling, and twenty polls in a row have shown a majority for independence. In times of crisis, a national leader must show face, and Alastair Jack (officially) believes that the Prime Minister is an “absolute asset” to the Tory and Union cause. Perhaps Johnson hopes that showing a little gallantry at the coalface can charm our national pants off.
The first problem with that theory is that few political leaders are so ill-equipped for a charm offensive. Indeed, a poll last October found that the most persuasive argument for Scottish independence was the Prime Minister’s image problem: 79 percent were swayed to vote yes by the statement, “Boris Johnson is not the leader I want to have for my country”. Simply showing up in Scotland is unlikely to change those impressions or prove that he “cares” for his northern subjects. It’s his over-proximity rather than his anonymity that’s damaging the Union.
Also, there’s a pandemic on. Under those circumstances, the usual laws of deference no longer apply: northern jaunts even by more popular national figures, like the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, draw fierce criticism. And just 22 percent of Scots approve of Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, largely because they see Johnson as erratic and prone to libertarian bungling. An unnecessary sales trip will almost certainly harden those views.
Logically, Johnson’s trip only makes sense as unionist agitprop. As the BBC’s Nick Eardley put it, “While London and Edinburgh debate whether the visit meets Covid guidelines, many unionists now believe making their case increasingly falls into the essential category.” Yet all evidence suggests it will harm the Union and present SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon with an open goal. The trip thus has the feel of a Unionist kamikaze mission: pick a fight with the nationalists, hope that the sheer randomness of this misfiring Blunderbuss will alter a losing dynamic.
Critics might accuse Nicola Sturgeon of playing her own brand of politics, perhaps to distract from a raft of increasingly damaging accusations emerging from the Salmond investigation. That may be true. However, there is an election on, she is the leader of a national party, and playing politics is therefore her job. It was the Conservatives who decided to pick a fight they have a high percentage chance of losing.
Michael Gove and Gordon Brown, Westminster’s designated Jock whisperers, were meant to be putting their wise heads together to discuss a PR offensive. If this represents stage one, Unionism really is in trouble. There are endless logistical problems with Sturgeon’s view of independence; that said, there appears faint hope for a British political consensus to return. The worst of all worlds would be a zombie union, persisting because the Yes side dithers too much to finish the job. Assuming an SNP re-election, our next parliamentary term will tell.