SNP government's unionist critics should take a look at Boris Johnson's Cabinet of 'jokers' and 'clowns' – Joyce McMillan

Wednesday evening, and the internet is alive with the sound of non-Conservatives all over Britain bewailing Boris Johnson’s new Cabinet reshuffle.

Nadine Dorries, who previously appeared on the ITV show I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here!, is now the UK government's Culture Secretary (Picture: Victoria Jones/PA)

The words “duds”, “jokers” and “clowns” feature frequently, as do adjectives like “dysfunctional” and “shameful”.

Someone creates a mock-up of a BBC News headline declaring that Jacob Rees-Mogg is to replace Brandon Lewis as Northern Ireland Secretary; but the joke falls flat, in a world where Liz Truss has just been made Foreign Secretary, and where the post of Culture Secretary has just been handed to a woman most famous for losing the Tory whip, back in 2012, when she went absent without leave from Parliament to take part in I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!

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It’s five years, now, since Michael Gove’s famous pre-Brexit comment that the people of Britain were “tired of experts”; but I doubt whether even those who nodded along, at the time, would have predicted that, half a decade on, they would be so completely saddled with a government of the uninformed, the unimpressive, and the ill-prepared.

Sector after sector of the real economy now feels as if it is being trolled by a hostile government, as committed healthcare privatiser Sajid Javid takes the helm of the NHS, Liz Truss mocks desperate food producers by suggesting they work harder to replace sales to the vast EU market on our doorstep with exports to Australia, and right-wing culture warrior Nadine Dorries is put in charge of the cultural and media life that was until recently one of Britain’s greatest success stories.

Nor do members of the Johnson government play by normal ethical rules, as rank cronyism and proven breaches of the ministerial code are routinely left unpunished; and all of this – given Labour’s current weak performance – is causing widespread despair among the millions upon millions, across England, who are not supporters of the present government.

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Scottish independence's central argument that Scotland and England have differen...

In Scotland, though, the impact is different, and tends to be played out through the increasingly bitter independence debate. For strong supporters of independence, of course, all of the above simply supports their existing view that the Westminster system of government is a creaky and corruptible 19th-century construct, no longer fit for purpose.

On the unionist side, though, the impact of the current poor quality of government at Westminster is often barely acknowledged. Enter any unionist-leaning internet conversation, and you will find lists upon lists of failures and misdemeanours of the Scottish government, from the Ferguson Marine fiasco to current ambulance waiting times.

Some are absolutely real, others less so; but they are all presented as conclusive proof that Scottish independence would be a disaster. And the same shape of argument – the SNP is flawed, so better stick with the status quo – also emerges from the small but vocal group of former independence supporters who have decided to abandon the cause.

What these arguments miss, though, is the colossal elephant in the room, the huge and roaring question, “compared with what?” Much unionist discourse in Britain still assumes a kind of normative alternative to independence, a default option of continuing Union that is always less risky, more familiar, and less disruptive.

What this line of argument cannot handle, though – and perhaps barely dares to contemplate – is the mounting evidence that that old, normal, stable British option is evaporating, to be replaced by something much less reliable, and more eccentric.

In 2014, we in Scotland were invited to remain in the UK in order to guarantee our EU membership; yet in 2021, we live in a post-Brexit Britain of bare supermarket shelves and minimal global clout, that conducts its EU relations mainly via threats to breach the slender withdrawal treaties we managed to negotiate after 2016; and we also see incompetence and dodgy dealings on a scale that – as a matter of fact, in terms of cost per head of population – simply dwarfs anything the Scottish government has so far achieved.

Well, enough. This week, that old political warrior Gordon Brown has once again stepped into the fray, pointing out the similarity of values among ordinary people across the UK, and the fact that the vast majority want co-operation rather than conflict.

As ever, he sees the SNP as the principal source of unnecessary conflict; but this time, he also seems to perceive that the type of British identity we are being offered by Boris Johnson’s government is likewise a profound problem, a form of ultra-nationalism that is not compatible with the successful running of a multinational state like the UK.

Gordon Brown continues to believe, of course, that Westminster’s current spasm of toxic Britishness can be reversed, no doubt under the next UK Labour government. But many Scots, meanwhile, have concluded that things have gone too far, and that our best route back to some more normative and internationally connected form of 21st century government lies in independence.

And in that sense, at least, the positions of Gordon Brown and Nicola Sturgeon are not so far apart, in terms of desired outcome; the difference revolves around the idea of sovereignty, and whether Scotland needs to assert its sovereignty in order to negotiate a new settlement with its nearest neighbours, or can achieve that position by other means.

It is regrettable, no question, that that small but crucial difference has become the subject of so much bile and hatred among Scotland’s social democrats, who otherwise agree on so much.

Yet for now, in the aftermath of Boris Johnson’s bizarre reshuffle of the untalented, it seems to me that at the very least, more unionists need to follow Gordon Brown’s belated but useful example; and, when reciting the undoubted flaws of Scotland’s SNP government, also take it upon themselves to begin to answer the question, “compared with what?”, both at UK level, and beyond.

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