He and other members of his group – Action for Scotland – are hate-mongers, end of story. What they are doing is divisive and counter-productive to the cause they claim to embrace. They are a godsend to their political opponents, forcing Nicola Sturgeon to proclaim she “doesn’t have an anti-English bone in her body” (though there was no reason to suppose she did) and Edinburgh Airport to say: “These people do not represent the Scotland we live and work in or the Scotland that is recognised for its friendliness and tolerance across the globe.”
Having said all that, there is one English tourist we could probably do without, and that’s Boris Johnson.
Last week, the Daily Mail tracked our wandering Prime Minister to a tent on a rocky outcrop on a stretch of Highland coastline overlooking Skye. I say “a tent”. It looked more like a bedsheet raised up to form a shelter with a broom handle. And it came with a salubrious three-bedroomed cottage attached. If Johnson was camping at all, he was playing at it.
Anyway, it was here that Johnson, his partner Carrie, their son Wilfred and dog Dilyn were hiding out during the English exam results fiasco… sorry, I mean enjoying their summer holiday. I believe in holidays; in theory more than practice (before my family takes issue with this contention). But even in the midst of a pandemic, perhaps especially in the midst of a pandemic, our leaders should be entitled to recharge their batteries.
And Johnson’s batteries must be in need of recharging. After all, it’s been a full eight months since that £15,000 Christmas/New Year vacation in Mustique. And he was seriously ill with Covid-19 in April. Then again, there have been quite a few informal leaves of absence along the way. During the winter floods, the coronavirus Cobra meetings and several key pandemic briefings, he has absconded leaving others holding the mop and the mic. Google “Boris and AWOL” and you get more than a million hits. It’s an evergreen headline.
Like TS Eliot’s Macavity, whenever there’s a crisis, Johnson is not there. So it’s not surprising he should have chosen to head for the hills with the latest iteration of his family during the A-levels/GCSE debacle. Or that – given his track record – he should have made a nuisance of himself while he was there. According to the Mail, he ensconced himself in Applecross – which is on the North Coast 500 – a route plagued by inconsiderate travellers.
A few weeks ago, residents of Durness, with its fragile dune system, appealed for help after the village was over-run by campers who lit fires and left a trail of broken bottles, rubbish and human waste. In Applecross, Johnson apparently annoyed a farmer by marauding over fences, lighting a campfire and pitching his tent on his land without asking permission.
As he wound up the locals, Nicola Sturgeon pressed on with her daily briefings, and her high approval ratings held steady. Her presenteeism may teeter towards masochism, but is infinitely preferable to Johnson’s nonchalance. Observers often scratch their heads over how she does it; how she escapes a public savaging over serious mistakes such as the release of Covid-19 positive patients from hospitals to care homes, and the use of an exams algorithm which entrenched disadvantage.
But it’s not a great mystery. It’s because she’s there at the coalface, taking the questions, accepting a degree of responsibility, rather than skiving off to some far flung spot while her Education Secretary crumbles under questioning. At her best, she is impressive. But even at her worst, she is what Saul Bellow referred to as a “contrast gainer”.
Here’s another way in which Sturgeon benefits from comparisons with Johnson et al: she has been careful over the company she keeps.
Most of the Brexit boys have cosied up to Steve Bannon: libertarian ideologue, president-maker and ally of far-right European politicians from Matteo Salvini to Viktor Orban. In his new book Democracy for Sale, Peter Geoghegan writes about the 10th anniversary conference of the Eurosceptic Young Britons Foundation at which Bannon spoke alongside soon-to-be Leavers: Douglas Carswell, Steve Baker, Robert Halfron, Conor Burns.
Bannon, one-time vice-president of defunct data-harvesting company Cambridge Analytica, was acquainted with Johnson. He is said to have written the then-Foreign Secretary’s resignation speech in July 2018. And he has a close relationship with Nigel Farage, who conferred with him about his plans to form the Brexit Party.
Even after Bannon had fallen from grace – when he was no longer Trump’s chief strategist and had been cast out of the inner circle – he was offered platforms in the US and the UK.
Sturgeon, however, blanked him. When she discovered he was speaking at a BBC/ European Broadcasting Union conference she was due to attend, she withdrew, saying: “I will not be part of any process that risks legitimising or normalising far-right, racist views.” Bannon insisted she should engage. “You can’t just virtue signal from your fence on the left,” he said. But it turned out she could.
Now Bannon has been charged with defrauding donors who thought they were donating to the construction of a wall on the US/Mexico border. Unlike others who were in his thrall, Sturgeon can take the moral high ground because she never allowed herself to be pulled into his orbit.
Just as she can tut at Johnson for bunking off the Highlands without so much as “sorry, we failed you” to the teenagers crushed by their downgraded results. It’s nonsensical for the Tories to complain she is getting an easy ride when their dirty dealing and incompetence is so obviously increasing her lustre.
As for Johnson’s “staycation”, who knows why he chose to come back to Scotland. It’s not as if he was warmly received when he visited Orkney and Moray in July. And the midges are terrible this time of year.
Perhaps he came to pick a fight. Hours after his tent was photographed by the Mail, the Sun was reporting he’d been forced to cut his holiday short over security concerns.
“Westminster was awash with claims his location had been leaked by his Scottish Nationalist adversaries,” it reported breathlessly. And a senior Tory told the newspaper: “The finger of blame for this all getting out is being pointed at the SNP, particularly Ian Blackford who is local.”
Risible though it is, that story suits the Tories’ narrative: that Scots are insular and anti-English and want to drive southerners back to their side of the Border. But the Clerkins of this world are representative of no-one but themselves, and certainly not of a movement which is predominantly outward-looking.
Most Scots judge tourists not on their nationality, but on their behaviour – whether they are respectful and tidy up their own mess. It is only to the selfish and the feckless they say: “Don’t haste ye back.”
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