Boris Johnson is increasingly confident he can see off the threat of Scottish independence

The prime minister has snubbed Nicola Sturgeon, choosing instead to visit Douglas Ross in Scotland – but the battle to save the union has not yet been won

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 04 August 2021 13:45
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<p>Boris Johnson with Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross in 2019</p>

Boris Johnson with Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross in 2019

Boris Johnson is making a rare visit to Scotland today. He has wrongly spurned Nicola Sturgeon’s invitation to a face-to-face meeting as he doesn’t want to put her on a pedestal as high as his one.

He would rather play cat and mouse in an attempt to avoid protests by pro-independence campaigners. If they gatecrash his trip, the TV pictures underline his unpopularity north of the border. Although ministers including Johnson intend to visit Scotland more frequently, he gave the game away by keeping out of May’s Scottish parliament elections, when the Conservatives saw off a challenge from a revived Labour Party to hold on to second place.

Sturgeon’s invite, issued on Monday, to her residence at Bute House, Edinburgh, for talks on post-Covid recovery, was a “win-win” piece of politicking. If Johnson accepted, media coverage would show them on an equal footing. If he refused, it would make Johnson look evasive and in denial about the SNP’s dominance in the country. He is instead meeting Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader.

Johnson told Sturgeon in a letter he looked forward to meeting her soon, along with the first ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland.

But his commitment to devolution is at best lukewarm. Dominic Cummings, his former closest adviser, describes Johnson as an unthinking unionist who “thinks devolution/Scottish parliament was a disaster,” and would like to reverse it but will not dare try.

On his two-day visit, the prime minister will talk up the benefits of UK-wide projects like the vaccination programme and creating green jobs, with an eye on the Cop26 summit in Glasgow in November. As she has done throughout the pandemic, Sturgeon kept one step ahead of the UK government yesterday by trailing plans to vaccinate 16- and 17-year-olds before irritated ministers in London followed in her wake today.

Johnson is armed with a new defensive shield on Scottish independence. In an important shift, ministers have dropped their counterproductive “just say no” response to demands for another referendum. That risked building support for a referendum and even independence itself. It didn’t answer the question: when could there ever be a democratic mandate for a referendum?

Now ministers say they would allow a referendum if holding one becomes the clear “settled will” of the Scottish people. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, told Scotland’s Sunday Mail: “The principle that the people of Scotland, in the right circumstances, can ask that question again is there.”

It’s a sensible move but doesn’t mean there’ll be such a vote anytime soon. The Tories are sticking to their line that now is not the right time. They have not spelt out how they will judge the “settled will” of the Scottish people – presumably by the opinion polls, but would it require the consistent support of 51 per cent or 60 per cent, and for how long?

This elastic concept is designed to help Johnson stall demands for a referendum until after the next general election, in the hope the Scottish National Party loses seats and the Tories can claim it lacks a mandate for a public vote. In the meantime, ministers will continue to fund projects in Scotland to remind voters they have “two governments”. This is part of a more coherent approach Gove has brought to the issue following infighting inside the government on how to answer the Scottish question.

Indeed, there is cautious optimism among UK ministers that the high watermark of the nationalist tide might have passed. On the basis of their legal advice, they are confident the SNP’s plan to call a referendum without the UK government’s go-ahead will be blocked by the Supreme Court, because the 1998 Scotland Act says the constitution is a “reserved matter” for Westminster.

The SNP has lost momentum since the May elections, which saw it fall one seat short of an overall majority but secure a pro-independence parliament with the help of the Greens. The most recent polls show Scots would reject independence by a narrow margin, a turnaround since last year. The SNP’s record 14 years in power is under increasing scrutiny amid criticism over education, the highest rate of drugs deaths in Europe, which Sturgeon admits is “shameful,” and the handling of the vaccine rollout.

Sturgeon has said very little about independence since May because she promised voters she would focus on the pandemic in the first 100 days of her new term, which ends on Friday of next week. Talking about the constitution would have alienated middle-of-the-road voters. But SNP activists are impatient; they worry a chance to achieve their holy grail might slip from their grasp.

The ceasefire is strictly temporary, merely the calm before the next storm. The SNP will relaunch its campaign for independence at a conference next month. It believes a formal cooperation agreement with Greens, expected to be agreed soon, will strengthen its mandate for a referendum.

Johnson and his ministers shouldn’t assume the battle to save the union has been won; it hasn’t even begun.

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