After 13 years in power, and nine months of intense Covid crisis, the party’s leadership often looks exhausted, and is certainly hardly a powerhouse of new thinking about Scotland’s future. The party is riven by divisions, principally over how aggressive it should be in pursuing Scottish independence at a time when the cause is more popular than ever, but when most voters have other priorities, notably the impact of the pandemic on their daily lives.
In dealing with the pandemic itself, the Scottish government has to walk an exhausting tightrope between deploying its own powers, and waiting for the UK government to provide the resources needed to fund lockdowns and furlough schemes. And rumbling along in the background is the painfully corrosive Alex Salmond affair, a cause celebre for a noisy minority in the SNP that has led the Scottish government into the elementary error of trying to cover up information that is bound to become public sooner rather than later – never a good look, for any party in power.
Yet have all of these difficulties sent the Scottish government’s popularity into free-fall? They have not; on the contrary, the SNP is still attracting remarkable levels of support for a party that has been in power for 13 years. Nor is the reason for their success hard to discern.
As even London-based commentators and politicians were quick to observe this week, following the Prime Minister’s unfortunate remarks to the 1922 Committee about the “disaster” of devolution, Boris Johnson and his government are now recruiting support for the cause of Scottish independence faster than the SNP can lose it; so much so that the UK government has now loudly proclaimed its intention of throwing large amounts of public money at a PR campaign trumpeting the “emotional and cultural” case for the Union.
All of which only emphasises the depth of the trouble they are in, when it comes to defending a Union which this generation of Conservatives, or the vast majority of them, seem not to understand in the slightest. That they understand nothing about Northern Ireland is evident from their complete failure to anticipate its likely key role in Brexit negotiations. That they understand little about Wales is increasingly evident, and is leading to a surge in support for greater powers for the Cardiff Senedd.
And as for Scotland, the truth is that even those who dislike the idea of “losing Scotland” still seem unwilling to put in the hard yards involved in actually learning anything about the place. They do not understand that support for the 21st century SNP is not primarily “emotional and cultural”, but is largely about a rational difference of opinion on what kind of future Scotland wants. They do not know Scotland’s geography, or only very sketchily. They often cannot even pronounce its place-names.
And above all, they know nothing and understand less about Scotland’s political system, as it has taken shape since 1997. They are not alone in this; over the last 20 years, I have been constantly amazed by the extent to which Westminster – politicians, advisers, lobbyists – seems not so much uninterested in the new democratic institutions taking shape in Scotland and Wales, as completely unconscious of them.
The Tories, though, are in a class of their own in this respect. Completely uninvolved in the debates on constitutional reform that led to the 1999 devolution settlement, they simply ignored the whole subject for as long as they could, finding it completely irrelevant to the political world inhabited by Tory high-flyers like David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
And as a result, Boris Johnson as Prime Minister is now fighting to “save the Union” from a position of ignorance that makes his every utterance on the subject – including his sweeping dismissal both of devolution and of the SNP’s record in government – sound both ridiculous and disrespectful, to all but a small ultra-unionist rump of Scots.
If he had any humility or proper political curiosity, he would now be studying the history of devolution, in order to understand – for example – the SNP’s remarkable success since 2007 in becoming a stable party of government, while remaining an independence campaign.
He would be showing some informed interest in a Scottish electoral system which has essentially saved his party’s bacon as a serious electoral force in Scotland, by affording them the 25 or 30 MSPs that match their level of support in the country, rather than the handful they could win under the distortions of first-past-the-post.
And he would be recognising, with some respect, that that system sets a higher bar of public support, for winning politicians like Nicola Sturgeon, than the minority 43 per cent of the vote that enables him to claim total victory at Westminster.
Boris Johnson, though, will not be doing any of those things; he lacks both the interest and the humility for the task. And that, in the end, is how empires crumble and unions fail; that arrogance, that unconcern, that fundamental lack of interest in the detail of politics across the whole territory.
Boris Johnson and his generation of leading Conservatives do not have that interest, and cannot fake it. And unless and until the UK finds a Prime Minister who can utterly transform that culture of complacency at the centre, and inaugurate a whole new age of democratic reform across the Union, the good ship UK will continue to drift towards the rocks; not with an imminent bang, perhaps, but with a whimper – and a whimper that is finally more of ignorance and indifference, than of despair.