Queensferry Crossing: How unionists are using this ‘stunning’ bridge as political pawn – Joyce McMillan
Back in 2017, I was one of the lucky ones whose name came up on the ballot for the great walk across the Queensferry Crossing, before its official opening by the Queen. My sister and I walked across it, on that bright, calm September day, with crowds of other happy people; we marvelled at the beauty of the bridge’s structure, raised almost £500 for charity, and – like most people who live in Scotland, I would guess – felt a touch of pride at the sheer grandeur of these three mighty Forth crossings, each one speaking so eloquently of the time in which it was made, the 1890s, the 1960s, the 2010s.
I think I might have wept, if I had known, back then, how far the politics of Brexit Britain would reduce this gorgeous structure to a mere political pawn, to be disparaged, scorned and lied about; yet that was the spectacle that emerged in Scottish politics this week, after the Queensferry Crossing was closed to traffic on Monday and Tuesday, at the height of Storm Ciara. It wasn’t the only bridge to make the headlines this week, of course; while Michael Gove issued the devastating news that all the Government’s assurances about “frictionless” post-Brexit trade with the EU had been worthless, Boris Johnson effortlessly distracted the nation with a series of big infrastructure announcements, including a feasibility study on his improbable notion of a bridge linking Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Yet not all Boris Johnson’s grandstanding, on this and other matters, can quite obscure how damaging his premiership is proving to the very concept of the Union, at both ends of his imagined bridge. As I write, he has just sacked Julian Smith – perhaps the most effective and popular Northern Ireland Secretary of the last decade – in what will be seen as yet another insult, careless or calculated, to a province that has already had more than enough of Boris Johnson and his gung-ho Tory Brexiteers since 2016.
And even in London the penny is gradually beginning to drop, about the key role being played by British retro-nationalists like Boris Johnson in undermining a UK which is now struggling to withstand the Johnsonian notion of absolute Westminster sovereignty. “It’s hard for English non-Tories to plead the unionist cause,” wrote the liberal Guardian columnist Rafael Behr this week, “when the union has Boris, Brexiteer supreme, as its champion”. Although his column is full of familiar misconceptions about the character of the current independence movement, Behr is right when he observes that there is currently no convincing or positive unionist narrative to be had, either from the “tin-eared Tories”, or a fractured and bewildered British left. And in its absence, we in Scotland are increasingly left with nothing but the hope of a Nordic-style independence on one hand; and on the other, a long, depressing tirade of scaremongering about Scotland’s alleged inability, alone among the smaller nations of northern Europe, even to organise a booze-up in a distillery without help from London, never mind to function successfully as an independent nation.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that this form of negative campaigning reached an apogee of absurdity, this week, over the temporary closure of the new Queensferry Crossing during storm Ciara. Whatever the flaws in the original case for the Queensferry Crossing, the facts about the bridge itself are straightforward enough. It is a beautiful and indeed award-winning new bridge, described as “stunning”, at the time of its opening in 2017, by no less a person than current Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw, chair of the Scottish Parliament committee that helped supervise its construction.
Unlike the majority of large UK infrastructure projects – including all of those ever presided over by Boris Johnson – it was completed more or less on time, and well within budget. Its closure this week was its first since it opened two-and-a-half years ago, and was caused by a combination of climatic conditions that is likely to occur only rarely. It remained open throughout the Beast From The East blizzard of 2018; and its closure during storm Ciara coincided with the complete closure of the Humber Bridge, for only the second time in its 30-year history.
Yet these sober facts apparently count for nothing, set beside the desperate need of unionists – currently with no better story to tell – to persuade Scots that the Queensferry Crossing closure was in fact due to an outrageous and unparalleled level of incompetence on the part of the Scottish Government. And it is difficult, in the face of this level of absurdity, to avoid the conclusion that every argument or incident in Scottish politics is fast becoming nothing more than a proxy for the fundamental disagreement about whether our future lies within the UK, or as an independent state in Europe – with people on both sides ever more resistant to facts that do not support the entrenched constitutional position they hold.
Nor, for Scotland, is there currently any obvious path out of this stalemate. The forces of independence feel that history, and the fundamental aspirations of Scottish people, are on their side; the unionists have all the might of the British state at their back, and will not cease to try to persuade Scots that they cannot go it alone. We can be grateful, of course, that our constitutional impasse is a non-violent one, and that it has not been marked by the kind of gross repressive measures used by the Spanish state in Catalonia.
No-one can argue, though, that a prolonged constitutional stalemate is anything other than damaging, to our economy, our society, and the very texture of our public debate. Yet still, I treasure the memory of that bright day on the bridge, two-and-a-half years ago; and live in hope of a time when we can consign the old politics of dominance and hegemony on these islands to the past, and live together in a spirit of mutual respect that will finally bind us more closely than any worn-out constitutional structures – or any physical bridges of metal and cable, beautiful and inspiring though they may be, on their day.