Should Scots expect a Boris love bomb in 2020 - and if some communities receive wadges of cash “Direct from London with Love,” will that defuse the growing pressure for a second independence referendum?
Almost certainly not.
Boris Johnson starts from a very low base north of the border - so unpopular he was airbrushed completely from the Tories’ Scottish election campaign. Part of the reason for that is his tacky, Tory Boy assumption that problems of trust and democratic failure can be resolved by heady whiffs of cash. Clearly, Scots are not such lofty, morally elevated beings that quick bungs are entirely unwelcome. But voters often disdain the hand that feeds - witness the English communities with squillions in EU structural funding, that voted cheerfully for Brexit. If a funding source doesn’t command basic respect, love bombs will be all puff and no impact.
So, if Scots are to be successfully wooed in 2020, something less nakedly transactional than bribery will be required.
There’s another problem - timing. The campaign for a second independence referendum will likely peak before the next Holyrood elections in May 2021 and that’s not long enough to properly cost projects or ensure that any resulting feelgood actually changes voting patterns.
Moreover, cash distributed with a fanfare north of the border, will infuriate newly acquired Tory “Blue Wall” voters living just south of it. Folk in the North of England know Scotland’s leapfrogged other industrial parts of Britain post devolution, and they’ll likely resent any lift for the Scots while they’re stuck playing catch up.
There’s an even more fundamental problem facing Boris - higher expectations of governance in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. Scots entered the union with our distinctive institutions intact and have developed a version of home rule over 20 years thanks to the Scottish Parliament and understand that long-term economic success requires robust, democratic structures.
Compare and contrast the situation in England, where democratic aspirations reach no further than the election of city mayors, who must bid for cash handouts from Westminster.
If Boris decides to “come for” the Scottish Parliament, stripping it of control over agriculture and fisheries or delivering infrastructure investment cash direct to communities instead, he will hit a formidable tripwire. The Yes movement will resist and highlight any attempts to erode the existing devolution settlement, and undecided voters will witness an unprovoked attack on the status quo by a Conservative and Unionist party.
Boris must face facts. The Scottish electorate massively rejected his party’s electoral platform and overwhelmingly rejected leaving the European Union but generally supports policy initiatives (like the renationalisation of ScotRail) which require the devolution of more policy levers then any Conservative Government will ever offer.
The Prime Minister has announced plans for a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission. But is it likely to give proper consideration to “Devo Max or “a form of federalism”?
Boris Johnson is set to pack the world’s second largest unelected chamber with yet more Tory politicians, roundly rejected by the electorate on December 12th. More cronies will become wholly-owned noble bums on seats, helping to complete the Tory leader’s real democracy project - the systematic control and muzzling of all the supposedly independent players that constitute Britain’s unwritten Constitution.
Yes, Boris is talking about replacing the House of Lords with a Senate to better represent the nations that make up the United Kingdom. He also talks about building a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland. I am perfectly ready to eat my hat if either promise ever materialises.
No unionist party has any intention of reforming the House of Lords - though mercifully, the SNP has never been lured into the world of corruption, gameplaying and entitlement that’s an integral part of the British honours system.
Neither is any unionist party prepared to stick its neck out for proportional representation, perfectly happy to leave Britain in a situation of arrested democratic development where voters must vote tactically to elect the least worst candidate, parties must stand down in favour of more popular rivals, and stumble on “united” despite containing irreconcilably opposing political views, simply because first past the post demands it.
Is anyone really saying that a British establishment unwilling to fix its own voting system or ludicrously elitist second chamber will somehow find the energy to extend devolution or embark upon federalism? Westminster cannot walk fast enough to update the very basics of democracy. How then will it ever run fast enough to create a new, and powerfully devolved modern state?
Now agreed - none of this automatically means Scottish voters are champing at the bit for a second independence referendum. But neither do they want the politics, inequality, archaic institutions and backward facing isolationism of Britain.
Avoiding one, means accepting the other. And much as folk understandably wish to delay the critical moment of choice, it’s coming.
There is no safe space, no comfortable corner to crawl into, no way to keep your head down till the arguments are over and life returns to normal. Normal died a long time ago. Margaret Thatcher steered Britain firmly onto a different path from the rest of Europe - one where the market dominates society. New Labour managed some stealthy redistribution of wealth but installed a damaging internal market in the English Health Service and failed to engage with the Tories to win voters over to the importance of equality and dignity in policy-making. Ironically, Scots have been semi-shielded from this harsh truth and the collapse of the union-affirming, welfare state by the protective action of the Scottish Parliament.
But there’s no escaping what we actually know. Whatever offers or blandishments, promises, one-off spending commitments or financial fruits fall from his magic money tree, Boris represents the end of the UK. He is the tin lid - the end of the post-war settlement and the end of any reasonable hope that Britain will become a fair and progressive society in the next few decades.
That’s why Boris stands little chance of persuading Scots to believe in his party, political outlook or bona fides.
We quietly know a more fundamental choice about Scotland’s future lies ahead.
And however difficult, inconvenient, stressful or worrying to some, that choice won’t be deflected by a few cynically-placed pots of Tory gold.