Boris Johnson made his first prime ministerial visit to Scotland today, so let’s hope he’s swotted up on Welsh public policy.
The new PM might not be aware but the actions of Welsh ministers are the key performance indicator for the Scottish Government.
When Nicola Sturgeon wants to turn the screw on the UK Government over Brexit, she teams up with Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford and can’t say enough about how progressive they are in Wales. Except, that is, when she’s asked to account for the SNP missing another NHS target, whereupon she will rhyme off every waiting list in Wales with a snort of derision for its hapless government.
We have always been at war with Llandudno.
After a time, the Prime Minister will become acquainted with how Sturgeon does business. She is neither the leftist revolutionary nor the Braveheart caricature that glowers from the pages of some London newspapers every election cycle. She is a clever strategist and sharp tactician who specialises in evading responsibility for her failings in government.
At every opportunity, she will pivot to Johnson’s delivery of Brexit because it is an easy hit for her and reinforces the SNP’s position as the anti-Brexit party. In doing so, she can connect with the overwhelming majority of Scots who voted Remain and dodge more trying questions about her domestic policy agenda.
Johnson could try to push back by pointing out the economic privations that would await a separate Scotland but this is exactly the argument Sturgeon wants, making Johnson the face of the Unionist cause all the while baiting him into conceding an illusory equality of standing between the two.
But Boris Johnson is not an equal of Nicola Sturgeon. He is, for good or for ill, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She is the head of a devolved administration; her entire electoral career is a creation of an Act of the UK Parliament. This cannot be said enough because it is a constitutional reality that David Cameron too often forgot. He treated Sturgeon, and Alex Salmond before her, like foreign dignitaries whose country he was visiting for the first time.
The new Prime Minister should engage the First Minister respectfully but he should not be afraid to assert himself as the more senior of the two. She may be first minister, but he is Scotland’s Prime Minister. So many powers have been devolved to Holyrood that Scots too rarely get to see the UK Government in action in Scotland. The distance this has created only aids the Nationalists in their project of ‘othering’ Westminster as an institution alien to Scotland.
It is incumbent on Boris Johnson to rectify this devolution drawback — one of many — and make clear that, as long as the SNP is in charge at Holyrood, it is the UK Government that is truly standing up for Scotland. A way to send that message is by a two-pronged attack on the Scottish Government’s policy failures. Johnson could use each of his visits to Scotland to highlight one of these failings and to invest directly in a related area.
This would communicate that, while the SNP is not delivering, at least the UK Government is doing its bit.
As an example, the PM might want to draw attention to the scandal of psychological therapies waiting times. The Scottish Government’s target for 90 per cent of patients to be seen in 18 weeks has not been met in a single quarter since December 2017.
The Prime Minister could meet with some of the patients affected by this situation and listen to their experiences. He could then praise the work of mental health clinicians while (carefully, temperately) expressing regret at the Scottish Government’s failure to deliver. Then comes the right hook: announce the creation of a new UK Government bursary for Scottish students who specialise in clinical mental health or even the founding of a Scottish centre for excellence paid for by the Treasury.
Funding could be allocated as non-Barnett additions to get around the Scottish Government, though where legislative consent was required SNP ministers would look callous and political if they attempted to block it. Each issue would have to be chosen with the UK Government’s own performance in mind — mental health treatment is an obvious one because in England a staggering 98.7 per cent of patients are seen within 18 weeks by the equivalent service — but there is plenty of scope in this regard.
This direct devolution approach sidesteps the Scottish Government, gets investment to where it’s needed and will do the most good, and has the serendipitous side effect of embarrassing the SNP. It would send a powerful, but positive, signal that Scotland’s primary government is not prepared to abandon it to the ineptitude of its secondary government.
And if Nicola Sturgeon wants to complain about power grabs and disrespecting the devolution settlement, she is free to do so — right after she explains her own power grab when it comes to foreign affairs, a matter wholly reserved to Westminster.
Of course, this could be costly and it would require Downing Street to have substantial political acumen when it comes to Scotland. At the moment, however, that is plainly lacking.
The Prime Minister desperately needs a crash course in Scottish politics. His own grasp is weak and his team, if they are honest, know the limitations of their own insights. This wouldn’t be a problem if he hadn’t sacked David Mundell and replaced him with backbencher Alister Jack, now learning on the job after being catapulted into the top post at the Scotland Office.
Politically, Scotland isn’t terribly different to England but there are discrete priorities and local inflections. Although it is a mistake to become paralysed by such matters, as Cameron often did, they must be understood and anticipated. What plays well in Middlesex doesn’t necessarily play well in Milngavie (a pronunciation you attempt at your own peril).
Ruth Davidson may not be minded to split the Scottish Tories from the UK party but some senior figures, including on her MSP benches, are set on it. If Johnson sinks the Scottish Tory vote, and especially if he drags down support for the Union, Davidson could come under internal pressure to cut the party’s losses.
So the alternative to cooperation is a known quantity. This makes it all the more imperative that Johnson and Davidson call a truce. They don’t have to like each other, they just have to work together.
Davidson can supply her Prime Minister with the intelligence, analysis and counsel he desperately needs to understand and govern Scotland. He can return the favour by hinting at the kind of investments a Davidson-led Holyrood administration would make, and by undermining the party that stands in her way.
The SNP is not just the opponent of the Scottish Tories but of the entire party because the Nationalists’ success threatens the very existence of the country. That is not to mention the possibility that Sturgeon could convince Jeremy Corbyn to give her a second separation referendum in exchange for propping up a minority Labour government one day.
UK Tories must be as committed to the fight against the SNP as they are to delivering Brexit and keeping the Trots out of Number 10. The Prime Minister can lead the way in this effort but only if he is willing to sue for peace with the Scottish Tory leader and strike an alliance — one of necessity, if not of enthusiasm — to defeat the twin threats of nationalism and reheated student-union socialism.
Scotland and the rest of the UK deserve an alternative to one party that wants to tear up the nation and another that wants to turn the nation into Venezuela. If they are prepared to join forces, do the hard work and make wise moderation their lodestar, Boris Johnson and Ruth Davidson could be that alternative.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Stephen at email@example.com. Feature image, left panel: © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.