Speaking at the annual dinner of my old rugby club in Barrow, my jocular host told the audience, to much laughter, that he hoped I had enjoyed my heavily subsidised meal. Ho ho ho... but subsidised? I was speaking for nothing and they were paying the dreadful Scouse comic on after me.
Gentle mickey-taking maybe – and everyone gets it at that kind of event – but you don’t have to go far in England to find people repeating the trope about subsidy-junkie Scotland and, with public spending in Scotland at £10,881 per person last year compared to an average of £9,350 in England, it’s not hard to see why. Only Northern Ireland got more than Scotland, at £11,190.
What’s forgotten is that higher Scottish public spending reflects the cost of delivering universal services to nine per cent of the UK population across 32 per cent of the land mass, including over 100,000 people living on 93 islands. If you’re seriously ill in Stornoway, a plane will fly you to Glasgow for treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
But not forgotten are constant complaints from the SNP about how appallingly treated Scotland is by Westminster, which to many Southern ears just sounds like “the English” in general and doesn’t go down well in places like the North-West where public spending is £8,915 per person. No wonder a lot of people think if Scotland wants independence, it can blooming well have it and can take its £13bn a year fiscal deficit with it. Some might even be tempted to paint the figure on the side of a bus.
That the UK’s net contribution to the EU in 2017 was estimated at £9bn, some £170m per week compared to the £350m gross bill splashed on the Brexit Bus, puts the antipathy some English Brexiteers have towards the Union in some context. And also helps explain why 63 per cent of Conservative members surveyed by pollsters YouGov would rather Brexit took place even if it caused Scotland to leave the UK.
Nationalists like Kenny MacAskill have tried to explain this as evidence of a deeper cultural and social schism, writing in this newspaper: “The days of folk in the south of England having a Scots granny or holidaying here, replaced by a new age where their people are from Greece or Africa and holidays are in Spain or beyond.”
The reality is that more English people come here than ever before, as Old Town residents will attest during the Festival, and there were in fact six million trips to Scotland from the rest of the UK in 2018, with each visitor staying on an average of four nights.
Ruth Davidson certainly spoke for all Scottish party members when she said “there are a number of people within the Conservative Party who need to take a long, hard look at themselves”, but other senior Conservatives have been warning for some time that the Scottish dimension was not registering with hard-line Southern Brexiteers whose vision is of a rocket-propelled English economy when the chains of the European customs union are broken.
Despite that £9bn a year contribution to the EU budget, the “Go if you want to” attitude is not uncommon in Europe either and I came across it even before the 2016 result was known.
Speaking at a pro-Europe event in The Hague to an audience made up largely of semi-retired Eurocrats, the prevailing view was that Britain was a lag on the core purpose of ever-closer integration and it was better for Europe if Britain left. Now that Boris Johnson’s picture is being sized up for the next space on the Downing Street staircase, and Brexit becomes even more of a distraction as Europe wrestles with change in the Commission and its own uncertain future, that view is strengthening and so gives a Johnson-led Brexit renegotiation more chance of success.
Without the benefit of a Yougov poll, I’d place the priorities of Scottish Conservatives as the Union first, seeing off Jeremy Corbyn second and Brexit third. For Remainers like myself and Ruth Davidson, staying in Europe was the key to the first two, but respecting the EU referendum result and the manifesto commitments of both Conservative and Labour Parties is now key to number one. What English party members think about Scottish independence is, frankly, neither here nor there.
Reluctantly, most Scottish Conservative Remainers understand the need to deliver Brexit as quickly as possible, so whatever the outcome the choice once again becomes a straightforward UK Yes or No. The biggest question facing the party membership now is who is most likely to persuade a majority of MPs to do what he wants, in a way that Theresa May repeatedly failed to do.
Again somewhat reluctantly, the conclusion I have reached is when the Withdrawal Agreement and Irish backstop is tweaked and rephrased, the DUP and hard Brexiteers are more likely to listen to Boris Johnson than Jeremy Hunt, who is already being dismissed as Theresa May in a business suit. Further, the EU election result has focussed the minds of Labour MPs in the Brexit heartlands of the North and Midlands who now know that failure to support departure will cost them their seats, but probably not enough of them to cover continued opposition from hard Brexiteers and Ulster Unionists.
Barrow is one such historically Labour seat, which although now in Cumbria is no Lake District idyll but a gritty, Lancastrian, red-brick, rugby league-loving enclave where Britain’s nuclear submarines are built. Out of a 70,000 population, BAE Sytems employs 7,000 so the yard and defence is not just a vital part of the local economy, it is the local economy, which relies not on the EU but on Britain’s place in the world. Knowing which side his meat and potato pie was salted, the sitting MP John Woodcock (2017 majority 207) abandoned Labour a year before Chuka Umunna.
Johnson may yet implode in the heat of the hustings between now and 22 July, but with all the affairs, the ‘illegitimate’ offspring, the untruths, the sackings, the blunders, the ill-judged phrases and now the accusations of manipulation all out in the open, it’s very hard to see what else could derail his campaign.
For the SNP, the prospect of Prime Minister Johnson and a no-deal Brexit must feel like all their Christmases, Easters and Trades Fridays coming at once. Only time and the High Court will tell if that’s still the case by 31 October.