The Union in the age of Boris

Boris Johnson’s Friday morning victory speech signalled that a new kind of Conservative Party was on the way. The Tories had swept Labour aside in swathes of working-class seats in what had been Britain’s socialist heartlands.

He told bleary-eyed Tory activists: ‘In winning this election we have won votes and the trust of people who have never voted Conservative before and people have always voted for other parties. Those people want change. We cannot, must not, must not, let them down, and in delivering change we must change too. We must recognise the incredible reality that we now speak as a one nation Conservative Party.’

Theresa May promised something similar but was distracted by Brexit. If Johnson succeeds where she failed and makes the Tories the permanent party of the workers he will be an historic Prime Minister. The question is whether his One Nation Toryism can extend to Scotland, where the Tories lost seven of their 13 seats on Thursday night. It is an altogether urgent enquiry since Nicola Sturgeon is spinning her party’s performance as a mandate for another referendum on Scexit.

These are the facts. The SNP won 48 seats on Thursday night. The Conservatives won a majority of 80 across the country. Boris Johnson will form a new government. And that government will decide if and when there is a second referendum on Scottish independence. There will be a lot of noise and gurning in the ensuing days and weeks but none of it will change these facts.

That does not mean Nicola Sturgeon will not try her level best. As the election results rolled in, the SNP leader told the BBC: ‘Boris Johnson has a mandate to take England out of the EU but he must accept that I have a mandate to give Scotland a choice for an alternative future.’

This is bunkum and it is important to recognise it as such, because once you buy into the logic of that sentence, you find yourself in slipping down a spiral towards the SNP’s favoured outcome. In the first instance, there were not separate referendums in the constituent nations of the country. The EU referendum was a UK-wide vote on whether the UK should remain in or leave the Brussels bloc.

The UK voted — albeit narrowly — to leave and now, three-and-a-half years later, we appear to be on the brink of leaving. The Prime Minister’s mandate no more stops at Gretna Green than the First Minister’s does at Biggar. Ours is a winner-takes-all system and, the political unit contested being the UK, the winner enjoys a mandate across its entirety.

That deals with Johnson’s mandate, but what about the mandate Sturgeon claims to have? A general election, unlike a UK-wide referendum, is actually 650 individual elections for the seats which make up the House of Commons. Whichever party commands a majority in the Commons has a mandate to form a government and legislate its manifesto commitments.

Attainment in mathematics is not what it used to be in Scotland but 48 is still a smaller number than 365. The SNP won just over seven per cent of Commons seats — a creditable result but mandate for nothing more than a hearty pat on the back and a glass or two of something fizzy in celebration.

Even if it were possible to achieve a mandate with 48 seats, how sound would that mandate be? ‘Stop Brexit’ was the theme of the SNP’s campaign, with talk of Scexit relegated to the secondary order. In the final days of the campaign, Sturgeon softened her language and said she was open-minded about proposals for a three-option referendum rather than another binary contest between Yes and No.

Some of her candidates explicitly delinked the election from Scexit. Amanda Burgauer, SNP candidate in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweedale, even told electors: ‘Please don’t waste your vote — lend it to me to remove the incumbent. I pledge I will not take your vote as pro-Indy.’ Candidates elsewhere eschewed references to Scexit or another referendum on their campaign literature. A mandate attained by hiding what you really stand for is a coward’s mandate.

None of this is to deny that Thursday was a good night for the SNP. It would be silly and churlish to pretend otherwise, but even so their position is nowhere near as robust as they would have you believe. True, they won a majority of seats but they did so on a minority of the votes, 45 per cent to be precise.

That brings us to another problem with the Nationalists’ numbers: if their success represents an endorsement of Scexit, it suggests support for breaking up the Union is no further forward on 2014, when they also claimed 45 per cent of the vote. Thursday night was difficult, and in places painful, for non-nationalist parties but the fact remains: they won a majority of the votes cast. If this was a proxy vote on Scexit, then Scots once again said No Thanks.

Don’t expect Nicola Sturgeon to pay heed to any of that. This is her latest opportunity at the history books and she is going to milk it for all it’s worth. Next week she will publish another case for another referendum and will tell Boris Johnson he has no right to block her plans and therefore must not. He has every right and he should but the Prime Minister must be careful to avoid any missteps or slips of the tongue (a hazard of the job with Boris Johnson).

The SNP leader hopes to rouse enough fury to panic Johnson into a foolhardy action or gaffe. He must remain zen-like while apprehending the gravity of what lies ahead. Keeping Scotland in the Union may require more tactical nous, fresh thinking and wise statecraft than even delivering Brexit.

The first order of business is psychological warfare. If the Prime Minister thinks of himself on the back foot, then on the back foot he’ll be. Instead, he should project confidence — while careful to avoid arrogance — and telegraph through everything he says and does that he is the Prime Minister and he is the one in the position of power. Nicola Sturgeon has the megaphone of devolved office and an amplifier in sections of the Scottish media but beyond that she lacks any real power to make the Prime Minister bend to her will.

Next comes what steps Johnson should take. Once again, he can simply say No, which would be wise, then move on, which would be unwise. There is a war of attrition ahead and he must plan for it meticulously. Begin with definitions. Mandate? As already discussed, Sturgeon does not have one. What about her promise that the 2014 vote would be a ‘once in a generation event’?

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a generation as ‘the average span of time between the birth of parents and that of their offspring’ and demographics statistics show the average age of a first-time mother in the UK is 30 years. It’s possible to quibble about a few years one way or the other but no one can seriously suggest five years represents a generation.

As and when Sturgeon comes demanding a Section 30 order, Johnson can tell her that she lacks a mandate and hasn’t even met her own terms for a second vote this soon. There would be much wailing and indignation but little of substance that Sturgeon could do, unless she is willing to take the UK Government to court as some in her party have suggested. That approach might go down well with Ambulance Chasers for Independence but it likely wouldn’t pass the smell test among the general public.

Johnson’s problem is what happens in 2021. The Scottish Parliament will hold another election and if Sturgeon is able to turn out her vote like she did on Thursday, she could well win an outright majority on a manifesto committed to holding a second Scexit vote. The authentic Unionist position would be that, since the constitution is reserved to Westminster, it is impossible to obtain a mandate for a constitutional matter in a Holyrood election.

Unfortunately, David Cameron arguably conceded the principle when he permitted a separation referendum off the back of the SNP’s historic majority win in 2011. If I were the Prime Minister, I would be consulting far and wide for legal opinions on whether the courts would determine Cameron’s decision a precedent for the purposes of law.

Perhaps ministers would consider this tack too belligerent and open to legal challenge. In which case, they could take the counter-intuitive option of giving Sturgeon the referendum she keeps clamouring for, with some key provisions, such as having the Electoral Commission and not the Scottish Parliament set the question and requiring a supermajority — e.g. 60 per cent — for Scexit to pass. This is probably the least likely option because it would require the two governments to work together with mutual trust and cooperation, which is improbable. There are also some on the Unionist side who get very dainty at the prospect of supermajorities.

Just as important as proactive moves is avoiding pitfalls. There can be no complacency and no cynicism. There are Tories who chirp privately — and not so privately — that the forthcoming trial of Alex Salmond on 14 alleged sexual offences will damage the SNP politically. Salmond denies all charges against him, and Jackson Carlaw has urged Conservatives to avoid ‘dangerous’ and ‘cynical’ talk about such a serious and sensitive matter. The SNP’s opponents should forget about the witness box and focus instead on beating them at the ballot box.

These decisions will be taken in the coming months but what we can say with certainty today is that the fight for the Union is back on. The fact it was ever allowed to go off is a reminder of the chronic complacency of Unionist politicians. They got lucky last time and stopped separation at five minutes to midnight. They might not be so lucky next time.

Lamentable though it will be to many, while scolding the Nationalists for being obsessed with the constitution, the Unionist side of politics will have to be equally fixated. The future of the country is on the line every day the SNP remains in office and those who believe in the United Kingdom must be prepared to fight every day to keep their country together.

That fight must be one of passion. Unionists fall into the trap of speaking in numbers, like human calculators and just as relatable. Instead, they should appeal to what remains of a shared British identity while working to kindle new customs and institutions that re-thread the ties already torn apart by nationalism. For Scots to continue to back the Union, financial prosperity will not be enough of an incentive.

As we saw in the Brexit referendum, voters sometimes place a higher value on emotional currencies like control, community and national identity. Opponents of Scexit need to understand this and attune their messaging accordingly. A unionism of the heart and not just the head is vital.

In the immediate, it is essential that the Prime Minister not be panicked into doing anything precipitous. Now is not the time to be drawing up lists of yet more powers to surrender to Holyrood or appointing learned professors to constitutional conventions on federalism.

Johnson must take soundings and draw up a strategy for securing the Union in the short to medium term. Nicola Sturgeon says she will publish another case for Scexit next week. Let her. Do not overreact. The First Minister will be publishing a booklet; the Prime Minister will be getting on with running the country.

The time will come, however, when ideas must be engaged and Unionists will have to do it with as much emotional fluency as their opponents. It is not enough to oppose independence or even to love the Union; they must be able to tell a convincing story about why Scotland belongs in the Union and why seceding would be a grievous loss of identity and place for people on either side of the Tweed.

Boris Johnson has achieved his life’s ambition of leading the Conservatives to electoral triumph and defying the many critics of his political nous and personal foibles. The country has anointed him as its leader and now he must govern in the interests of all of that country. Scotland cannot be an afterthought, a lingering headache that he medicates away with a speech here or some extra cash there. Scotland is part of that one nation and ought to be treated accordingly.

He must think of himself as Scotland’s Prime Minister and, while showing respect and courtesy to the First Minister, he should not be gulled into seeing her post as equal to his. But he must also be magnanimous and recognise that many non-nationalist voters in Scotland lent their vote to the SNP specifically to block him from Downing Street. He will have to earn their trust and show in deeds as well as words that he has Scotland’s interests at heart.

Boris Johnson cannot become the symbol of the Union in Scotland but he can shape that Union to make it one a majority of Scots still want to remain a part of.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at Feature image © Foreign Office (cc/2.0).

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