Lucky old Boris’s dominance of English politics grows stronger by the day. Even the Greensill scandal is primarily about one of the Prime Minister’s predecessors and little to do with Johnson.
It is unlucky old David Cameron who has got himself into a jaw-dropping mess with a series of baffling decisions related to Lex Greensill, the wizard of Oz.
Boris was blissfully unaware and can blame the Greensill mess on the previous management. It is ancient history. Boris’s favourite kind of history.
A few of Boris’s confidantes and aides in Number 10 may be involved in elements of the Greensill scandal, but no-one outside Westminster has heard of them and the story is confusing.
Thanks to the Covid vaccine bounce he has a strong poll lead over Labour and Sir Keir Starmer. YouGov on Friday gave the Tories a 14 point lead, with the Tories on 43%, up 2 points, and Labour on 29%, down 5 points.
Another development that worries Labour in England is the rise of the Greens, as far-left voters and groovy radicals look for something environmental and anti-capitalist. In that YouGov poll the Greens were up two points to 8%. The Lib Dems are also on 8%.
That’s ominous for Labour. The anti-Tory vote in England is divided, and when it is the Tories win.
Boris reigns supreme. He is, though, supreme only in England. In Scotland it is another version of the same story, with Sturgeon on almost 50% of the vote and the opposition divided there.
This illustrates how Britain is fragmenting, with England, Scottish, and perhaps in time Welsh, politics diverging along nationalist lines.
Beyond the virus and variants, it is Scotland that worries Number 10 most now. The hopes of a few months ago that Sturgeon would be tarred by scandal, and that a new Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross and new Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar would squeeze Sturgeon, have come to nothing.
Unless the polls are wrong, or unless there is a change in the two and half weeks of campaigning that remains, Nicola Sturgeon is heading for a thumping victory. If she secures an overall majority it may prove impossible, post-pandemic, to reject demands for a new referendum on Scotland leaving the UK.
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With so much at stake, the election in Scotland gets weirder and more fantastical by the day. The SNP’s record after fourteen years in government, in charge of education, health and most other domestic policy, is atrocious. Yet, none of it – not scandal, incompetence, or the sinister blurring of the line between party and state – seems to make the slightest difference.
Instead, Sturgeon’s campaign rests on announcing ever larger “freebies”, giveaways with taxpayer money that has cascaded on Scotland, as it has on the rest of Britain, since Covid struck. Simultaneously, the SNP runs insulting post-truth party broadcasts lamenting supposed Tory austerity.
The Union is a transfer union, and Scotland receives up to 30% higher spending per head of the population compared to England. It has not always been that way. In the North Sea oil boom, England benefited. That is what unions and nations are for. They are collaborative; they involve sharing in good times and bad times.
The Unionist parties dare not point this out, beyond muttering a bit, for the simple reason that to mention that Scotland does well out of the Union is now deemed anti-Scottish.
This is a legacy of the 2014 referendum campaign, when Better Together won with a blunt message on economic realities, dubbed Project Fear by the Nationalists.
That SNP critique stuck. Flagging up economic realities is now deemed unpatriotic for key groups of voters. In focus groups and polling the message comes back again and again. The swing voters, who are undecided on the question of separation, don’t want to hear the truth about the economy, or the need for a new currency or huge cuts in Scottish public spending after separation. They want to vote “for Scotland”, primarily to reject Westminster and a Prime Minister they deem alien.
This means that the Unionist parties, seeking not to offend swing voters, fall back on saying that a second referendum should be avoided because of the pandemic, not because Scotland leaving the UK is a terrible idea involving disruption on a scale of a dramatically different order to Brexit.
The Alliance for Unity Party, the latest vehicle for George Galloway, says that it is making this case, but it is a fringe party that further divides the Unionist vote.
The result is that the Scottish election is happening in a parallel universe, where there cannot be a realistic discussion about what the SNP is proposing with the break-up of Britain.
Opponents of Brexit will say this is justice for the Unionists who backed leaving the Union, which rather overlooks the fact that separation from England is far bigger for Scotland, in terms of economic disruption, than Brexit is for Britain.
Anyway, the SNP would be demanding a referendum now even if Brexit had not happened. If David Cameron had won the EU referendum in 2016 and handed over to George Osborne, as was planned, in around 2018, the SNP would have declared that this constituted a material change. The foppish Osborne was about as popular in Scotland as Tim Roth’s cruel character in Rob Roy the movie.
The SNP will use anything as an excuse to demand a referendum, whether it’s Boris Johnson looking oddly at Nicola Sturgeon, or angry Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP at Westminster, finding that his waistcoat is too tight. Everything is the fault of Westminster, code for England.
I’m not sure what can be done about this tragic situation, short of some form of Unionist pact between the Scottish Unionist parties north of the border. Scottish Labour seems unlikely to agree any time soon to a pact with the hated “Torees.”
The looming danger is that the situation leads Scots to make the decision to leave the UK on a false, populist prospectus, without a proper understanding of how dire independence would be in the short to medium term and how robust the rest of the UK, primarily England, would be in negotiation after an independence vote.
I listen in amazement to my more reasonable Nationalist friends explain how this will, if it happens, be a negotiation of equals. A former civil servant gave a, frankly, deluded speech in Oxford this week explaining how it would all work. In this reading, England, and Wales and Northern Ireland, will want to keep nuclear weapons on the Clyde at Faslane, so will be looking for a good deal with Scotland. Other moderate Nationalists say they envisage sending a “solidarity cheque” (in what currency?) to London as a share of debt repayments.
This is hopelessly naive. My expectation is that the Treasury wouldn’t hang around to beg and barter for favours from the Scots. It would go for a clean break, swallowing the whole of the UK national debt and using the money saved from not having to subsidise Scotland to deal with it. The independent Scottish government, using the currency of the rest of the UK, and with an enormous hole in its public finances, would have no cards to play. Diddly squat. Not a sausage. None. Hee haw, in Scottish parlance.
The nuclear deterrent could and would move straight away temporarily to the US east coast, while the rest of the UK spent years constructing a base in England to house the deterrent.
London would not impose a Carthaginian peace on Scotland. After severing institutional ties, I suspect the reasonable English would mainly do what Scots hate most – they would ignore Scotland.
There are cross border connections and there is scope for politeness day to day. But in voting to leave the UK, and then to join the EU that the majority of English opinion really doesn’t like, the Scots would be relaunching the original grievance and reviving the tension that the Union was devised to deal with in the early 18th century. England would once again have a hostile power to its north, a hostile power trying to ally with Brussels.
There would also be a hard border north of Carlisle. There would be an unravelling of a three hundred year relationship. There would be a lot of unpleasantness along the way.
This is the SNP prospectus, leading directly to a needless breach and a historic error. I can only hope sufficient numbers of Scots wake up soon and stop it happening.