Letter to a Prime Minister in more trouble than he realises

Boris Johnson Cabinet Meeting at the FCO
21/07/2020. London, United Kingdom. Boris Johnson Cabinet Meeting at the FCO.The Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds his first face-to-face cabinet meeting at the Foreign Office since the Covid-19 Lockdown took place in March. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

Dear Boris,

Welcome back to Scotland. It’s always good to see a Prime Minister travelling north of the border, even when he isn’t convinced there is a border. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy to see you and some nationalists even think you ought to have secured permission to come here.

That is absurd, though no more absurd than any of their other pronouncements. You are the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and no more require someone else’s say-so to come here than Nicola Sturgeon does for her international junkets where she cosplays as a Caledonian Angela Merkel.

There is a border between Scotland and England but it is a jurisdictional boundary, not a sovereign division. It reflects Scotland’s distinct legal system and devolved governing arrangements, not a dividing line between separate states.

We, the Scots and the English, are not only neighbours but compatriots. Scotland is your country as much as it is mine.

Speaking of the First Minister, I understand you are not meeting her on your visit today. No worries. Keep a TV on in the background; she’s on at least once an hour.

Besides, there are more pressing matters for you to attend to. Let me be blunt: Things are not going well for your party up here. Jackson Carlaw is a good man and a robust parliamentarian but he is no Ruth Davidson. Were she still commanding the bridge, HMS Scottish Tories would be chugging full steam ahead to a respectable result in next May’s Holyrood election.

There was a fair chance the Tories under her could have deprived the separatist parties of their majority. As things stand, the SNP is heading for a majority in its own right.

The Scottish Conservatives have to fight their own battles, but a battle that is very much yours is being waged even before hostilities open in the 2021 election.

Just as you built up your vote by championing Brexit, the SNP sees an opportunity to advance Scexit despite your refusal to grant another referendum. There are growing calls within the nationalist movement to hold a Catalan-style wildcat ballot or to take the UK Government to the Supreme Court for one.

A recent spurt of polls suggest a majority of Scots would vote to leave the United Kingdom in any such plebiscite.

There is no sense in sugar-coating it: the Union is on the brink of destruction. Its foes have scarcely been stronger, better prepared or more handsomely resourced, nor its friends more disorganised, divided or despondent.

The Union may not be what got you into politics and it is not what made you Prime Minister but it is what will define your premiership and its place in history.

Making a success of Brexit, levelling up and Civil Service reform drive you and Dominic Cummings far more than the UK constitution, but if you lose the Union, you will almost certainly fail to deliver the rest of your agenda.

If that sounds melodramatic, consider this: Theresa May was Prime Minister for three years. Can you name anything she did in that time without using the word ‘Brexit’? Mrs May had her faults but had she been as implacable as Margaret Thatcher she would still have become trapped in the great suffocating swamp of process.

And if you think the process of negotiating the end of 47 years of trade relations was arduous, think what overseeing the demise of a 313-year-old political union would entail.

Just the prospect of Scottish secession will play havoc with the UK’s ability to strike post-Brexit trade deals and the reality of Scexit would leave the UK diminished not only in geographic area and population but in global standing.

Could the Security Council really justify continued denial of permanent membership to Germany, Japan and India while granting it to the UK?

As the Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russia confirms, Scottish secession isn’t merely a political matter but a national security one.

The ISC’s findings echo similar conclusions in a Facebook report published earlier this year about Iran’s interference in the 2014 referendum.

Rogue regimes that seek to undermine the democratic West and its intergovernmental bodies detect in Scottish independence an opportunity. They are right to. Not only would the lengthy distraction of Scexit reduce the UK’s ability to participate fully in international affairs for some time, it would directly imperil Britain’s defences.

The SNP is inveterately opposed to our independent nuclear deterrent and has previously endorsed a four-year timeline for Trident’s removal in the event of secession. Defence experts say this is nowhere near enough time and, anyway, there is no suitable location elsewhere in the UK to base the submarines and the warheads.

A Commons committee that looked into the question in 2013 concluded that Britain might have to ask the United States or France to take Trident in while a suitable facility was built.

These are the stakes and they are yours to bear, like it or not. You will either be the Prime Minister who saved the Union or the man who lost it and with it our status as a world power. This is why the Union matters and why it must be your first priority.

Now that we’ve got the apocalyptic bit out of the way, you might be relieved to hear you are doing some things right. The decision to put Michael Gove in charge of a Cabinet subcommittee on Union policy is one of the canniest you’ve yet made in relation to Scotland.

Gove understands the Nationalists in a way too few senior figures at Westminster do. You have also grasped the value of using the Shared Prosperity Fund to invest in Scottish infrastructure, thus demonstrating the benefits of the Union.

But it is not enough. The Scottish Government has established itself as Scotland’s primary government and Westminster is increasingly seen as remote and even irrelevant. The Nationalists have hijacked a parliament and an embryonic state built by New Labour in order to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’ and turned them into a juggernaut for separation.

You are going to have to confront that fact and confront the scale of the task involved in undoing some of the damage. Here is something no one around you is yet prepared to say: a new Scotland Act is needed.

More immediately, the UK Government has to increase its visibility and political relevance in Scotland. Scottish Government ministers are hardly off television screens but UK ministers are seldom seen. There is no face of the Union, as there is of independence, and in the absence of one the separatists are happy to have you fill that role. Please know that this is not a good thing.

History has cruel designs on you and your legacy. The Prime Minister who got Brexit done and got Britain undone. The English Tory who took back control and lost control of Scotland.

You have endured your own personal trials recently, but the battle that lies ahead will test you in ways no prime minister has been tested since Churchill’s darkest hour. The country is on the line and with it your place in its history.

Yours etc.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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