Boris Johnson's visit to Scotland show how English interest in the Union is waning – Kenny MacAskill

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who went to a Scottish Cup final, Boris Johnson decided not to set foot in the lion’s den during his lacklustre trip north of the Border, writes Kenny MacAskill.

Boris Johnson holds crabs caught on the Carvela at Stromness Harbour during a visit to Scotland (Picture: Robert Perry/PA Wire)
Boris Johnson holds crabs caught on the Carvela at Stromness Harbour during a visit to Scotland (Picture: Robert Perry/PA Wire)

Boris’s visit north was underwhelming to say the least. A flying visit to Orkney and a Moray photocall hardly heralded a crusade to save the union. The stage-managing was derided by the media and the entire event barely noticed by the public.

Of course, as with Brexit or his takeover of the Tory Party, it doesn’t mean that smart minds aren’t working on tactics and messaging, for they will be. The independence campaign must similarly prepare as the No side has also learned lessons from 2014. But what it indicates is his limited interest and that’s shared by a growing number south of the border. If I was a Scottish unionist, I’d be more afraid of that than anything.

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A serious campaign would have contained more than his usual haughty bluster and tiresome mixture of bonhomie and buffoonery. Steps to show how serious he is would have seen him do more than tokenism with visits to safe enclaves and being secluded from the public.

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Thatcher showed no fear

Margaret Thatcher ventured into the lion’s den by going to a Scottish Cup Final. It might not have converted any of the “fitba” fans to her policies, but it was a declaration of intent.

As far as she was concerned, she was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and she’d go where she liked. Labour was the opposition in Scotland then, but she wasn’t afraid either of them or nationalist sentiment.

Many thought she revelled in the anger it provoked. I don’t know but it certainly reassured the faithful, as much as dispiriting the opposition. Whether Hampden Park or opposition heartlands, there were never ‘no go’ areas for her. Even Northern Ireland wasn’t off limits at the height of the Troubles.

Many loathed the woman, me included, but no one underestimated her conviction or doubted her determination. But not Bold Boris. Sallying north after his call to arms, he was insulated from the public and chaperoned by sycophants. Thatcher would surely have been contemptuous had she been alive to witness it.

Devoid of substance

Where was the visit to Inverclyde, epicentre of the coronavirus crisis in Scotland, empathising with the suffering and loss, and being able to share his own misfortune? Or a trip to Inchinnan or Falkirk reassuring workers that everything that could be done by the blessed union was being done? And that it might be hard now with job losses, but they were still in the safe and comforting hands of the UK . . .

Instead he scuttled in and out with the follow-up by ministers equally lacklustre. Steve Barclay’s visit to Gorgie Farm was hardly going to set Edinburgh alight and the message was similarly anodyne. How great was the Tory munificence and no need for the Scottish Government to have increased borrowing powers? It hardly resonated with friends, let alone foes.

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There’s an economic crisis coming and all hands to the pumps is the demand be they in council, Holyrood or Westminster. The answers from Dominic Raab, to questioning on flagship Sunday politics shows, were also devoid of substance, consisting of soundbites.

That’s why I’d worry if I was a unionist. The attack lines for a referendum will be getting prepared by Dominic Cummings et al. But do they care any more? There was a time they most certainly did but now it seems less so.

A lesson from the Soviet Union

Thatcher was committed to the union even though she rightly conceded that if Scots voted for independence, they could have it. She was surrounded by heavyweights of like mind and supported by Scottish unionists of calibre.

Cameron didn’t want to go down in history as the PM who lost the union – though it might have been better as Brexit will be his epitaph. But Johnson really doesn’t care about anything other than being in power. A complete narcissist with no values and little compunction, he’d prefer it didn’t happen but that’s hardly the same as championing it, and it shows.

There’s little policy or intent and his acolytes in Scotland are truly desperate. A Scottish Secretary no one knows and the Conservative MP in the Baxter’s photo op was Douglas Ross, only recently derided as a “nobody” by a Downing Street source.

Safe in their hands the union most certainly isn’t. English public opinion is swinging. Scotland’s becoming viewed as an irritancy by many and an ingrate by others.

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Johnson’s rhetoric of a revived Empire has little place other than for a mere appendage north of the Tweed. It wouldn’t take much for a majority in England to think it better to head off without us. After all, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in his memoirs that it was revived Russian nationalism, not the Baltic States seeking independence, that broke the Soviet Union.

Kenny MacAskill is the SNP MP for East Lothian

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