Why badging bridges with Union Jacks risks backfiring – Lesley Riddoch

Who pays the piper, calls the tune.

ISLE OF WIGHT, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 27: Conservative party leadership contender Boris Johnson poses for a photograph in front of a Union Jack on a wall at the Wight Shipyard Company at Venture Quay during a visit to the Isle of Wight on June 27, 2019 on the Isle of Wight, United Kingdom. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are the remaining candidates in contention for the Conservative Party Leadership and thus Prime Minister of the UK. Results will be announced on July 23rd 2019. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The Prime Minister may soon discover that old adage no longer applies north of the border - or at least not vigorously enough to reverse political gravity and propel the Scottish Conservatives to victory in the 2021 Holyrood elections.

We learned last week that Boris Johnson intends to stamp major schemes in Scotland, funded by the UK Government, with a Union flag from early next year.

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The idea’s been backed by the new Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, who says his party should be “unashamed of our investment in Scotland” and determined to show a “visual connection” between UK Government money and infrastructure spending in Scotland.

Fine. It’s a free world.

But will ‘union badging’ help the Tories close their yawning credibility gap north of the border before May? How many new UK Government funded projects will be completed before Scots go the polls - enough to counteract the destructive impact of a No Deal or Flaky Deal Brexit? And even if Scotland is flooded with new spending projects (which work), how will punters be made to appreciate these are actually Boris bridges. Guided tours to inspect the funding boards amidst more heavily cosseted visits by British Government Ministers?

Far more likely that no-one beyond the great and good will even notice - and even the most chuffed public officials have only one vote apiece.

Because unfortunately for Johnson et al, the Boris Badge fits an easily discernible pattern of displacement, evasion and empty patronage in the face of massive structural problems.

Take the green carers’ badge.

15,000 of them, emblazoned with the word ‘Care,’ were distributed before supplies ran out. There are 1.5 million adult social carers in Britain, so just one per cent received Matt Hancock’s much vaunted token of ‘civic recognition’.

The badge was always a sop to distract folk who needed cash, respite care and properly funded local services instead. But even that sop was a cynical, half-hearted measure. Because that’s what Boris Johnson and his cabinet do best.

Witness their latest wheeze - scrapping Public Health England and replacing it with a unit specifically focused on pandemics.

It is a hopeless and transparent attempt to find a scapegoat for the British Government’s serial failings.

Doctor and broadcaster Dr Phil Hammond tweeted yesterday: “PHE is under the direct control of Matt Hancock. If it has failed, he has failed.” The Doctor observes that the new Institute is just the old Protection Agency, ‘with 40 per cent budget cuts and Hancock still in charge.”

Quite. Who do the Tories think they’re fooling?

Similarly, their sudden desire to emphasise Westminster’s spending largesse in Scotland, has obviously been triggered by opinion polls putting support for independence consistently above the 50 per cent mark. Did Boris care what Scots voters thought about UK Government spending north of the border before that political shift?

Evidently not.

But while he masterminds Scotland’s removal from the EU against our collective will in January, the Prime Minister somehow thinks we should pucker up and thank Whitehall for whatever crumbs of British infrastructure spending replace the structural fund-dispensing EU.


EU Structural Funds have been worth around £790 million to Scottish communities in the last seven years. So never mind the badges. Will the UK Shared Prosperity Fund replace all that missing cash on a like-for-like basis?

I hae ma doots.

So does the plain-speaking, former boss of the Department for Exiting the EU. Last October, Philip Rycroft observed that its creation begged, “a whole series of questions about how much money goes in, how it’s managed, and what role the UK and Scottish governments will have’.

Things haven’t got any clearer since - but one political imperative has.

Any spare cash from now on will be heading for the ‘Red Wall’ seats in the north of England which Boris must protect from the siren charms of Labour leader Keir Starmer.

So yes, the Prime Minister can point out that EU and Scottish Government badges have adorned bridges for decades and no-one’s complained.

But those signs went up in bad times, and in good - erected by governments who knew they had to earn respect and not just assume it, through planned public works delivered year in and year out, not just on birthdays, special occasions and when the opposition was doing awfy well.

But whilst this desperate ‘look at me’ drive for gratitude is mildly embarrassing, the belief that ‘revolting’ Scots can be placated with the promise of badged wadges of cash, is actually offensive. Messrs Gove, Johnson, Jack and Ross are behaving like 21st century noblemen, travelling to distant, rural airts - teeth-gritted - and throwing coins to the scrambling poor as evidence they really care.

Instead, their occasional, wooden appearances on TV act as a constant reminder that British ministers these days rarely venture into Scotland or actually come from here.

Of course, no community is actually going to reject investment.

But as one BBC reporter sagely observed during Boris’ recent trip to the perimeter fences of Moray and beyond, ‘Scots want more powers, the Prime Minister offers some more money.’

Bribery won’t wash.

English regions may currently aspire to little more than a few more Metro Mayors (mere ‘delivery vehicles for central initiatives,’ according to Philip Rycroft), and occasional one-off bungs from central government. They may even tolerate the language of ‘levelling up’ as if their communities are being raised by the central, god-like hand of Boris Johnson.

But the Scots are long past that.

Thanks to devolution, Yes and No voters know that having the power to shape investment decisions and raise taxes matters far more than a couple of one-off hand-outs from Number Ten. Especially when those bungs are ‘bestowed’ without mutually agreed rules, planning, input or any recognition that the cash was largely our own money in the first place.

We are past doffing caps, or being impressed with a few visits from ‘Imperial Masters’. We are past being bought off with pocket money.

Each union-flag-badged project in 2021 will only serve to demonstrate that Westminster controls cash - including tax revenues generated in Scotland by Scots. Will that be enough to distract Scottish voters from the democratic and economic catastrophe of Brexit?

Not even a genuine magician could pull that off.


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