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The Prime Minister always seems a shambling, physically awkward fellow. Nevertheless, he has a contortionist’s ability to put his foot in his mouth.
Telling a group of Tory MPs earlier this week that devolution has been a disaster for Scotland was his latest bout of foolishness.
Of course, people whose job it is to clear up the messes he makes scurried around, assuring us that he only meant devolution had opened the door to an SNP Scottish government and that it was this government that was the disaster. One might agree that it is a bad government (though no worse than his) while recognising that it is the words “devolution and disaster” that have resonated all the way to Holyrood.
They will be remembered when the campaigning for May’s Scottish Parliamentary Election gets underway.
No wonder the Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross is angry. Sir Geoffrey Howe’s gibe about Mrs Thatcher sending her batsmen to the wicket with bats she had broken comes to mind. “Vote Tory for election to a Parliament our Tory Prime Minister calls a disaster”. That slogan would attract undecided or floating voters, would it? Like a nasty stink it would.
I write as someone who for years in the 1990s argued against devolution in newspaper column after newspaper column. I thought it unnecessary and also thought that my old friend Tam Dalyell might have been right when he said that devolution would put us on a motorway to Independence. That still looks likely.
Nevertheless, there was a handsome majority for devolution in the 1997 referendum. The Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 and has been accepted by pretty well all of us north of the old Border, Unionists as well as Nationalists. It has become a natural part of the Constitution and of daily life. You can’t wish it out of existence and no serious politician calls for a return to the pre-devolution settlement.
Many Scots may not like the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, but almost all are, I think, happy with the idea of a First Minister of Scotland. The Scottish Government may have made no better a job of responding to the Coronavirus than the British one has in England, but Sturgeon has seemed more competent and more on top of the job than Johnson. She somehow speaks with an authority he fails to muster.
You might think that a Conservative Prime Minster should pay heed to Scottish Tories. They have come to accept devolution. They recognise that in its early days the hybrid method by which the Scottish Parliament is elected served as a life-support machine for them; it assured them of representation even when they could scarcely win any constituency seats. Devolution has kept the party alive, given it a voice and even sometimes influence. The Scottish Tories are now the most effective opposition the SNP faces. It is only for Scottish Labour that devolution has proved to be a disaster.
Independence is not inevitable, though in dark moments it seems very likely. Only the Scottish Tories speak clearly for the Union, though they do so, as Douglas Ross recently told the UK party, without intelligent support or even understanding from their English colleagues, least of all, one might add, from the Prime Minister.
The Scottish Tories are nationalist-Unionists. They have no future if they aren’t that, if they don’t speak up for the Scottish interest in the United Kingdom. Before devolution that was the role of the Secretary of State for Scotland, and some, like Labour’s Willie Ross and George Younger in the first Thatcher Government, played their hand skilfully. Now that duty devolves on the leader of the Scottish Tories in Scotland who should be helped by the Secretary of State in the UK Cabinet.
In Johnson’s Cabinet, however, there is not only no persuasive or powerful Scottish voice, there is no evident understanding of Scotland’s distinctive position within the UK. Arrangements for the repatriation of powers from Brussels and Strasbourg have made this painfully clear. Scotland voted against Brexit and did so by a handsome majority: 62 per cent for Remain, 38 per cent for Leave. Little consideration of this was given by Theresa May, despite her talk of “our precious, precious Union”, and none has been given by Johnson, though in drawing up his Internal Market Bill he had an opportunity to recognise that Scottish and English interests are not always identical. For Johnson, blundering like the proverbial bull in a china-shop, Scotland would appear to be only North Britain.
Douglas Ross correctly remarked that, in general, the four constituent peoples of the United Kingdom share the same values. Sadly, he was also right when he said that “Brexit has been damaging to support for the UK because it undermined, in the eyes of many, these shared values.”
The Prime Minister either doesn’t understand this or doesn’t care. If SNP politicians and voters had been asked to select a Tory leader whose character, language and conduct would make the best case for Scottish Independence and attract the waverers to their cause, they would have voted merrily for Boris Johnson.
It’s not devolution that has been a disaster. It’s the Prime Minister that is one.