Who is the most important figure in government?
Not Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister is the front-of-house manager but those are subject to change every five years. Nor is it Dominic Cummings, central though he is to this administration’s policy and positioning.
No, the answer is Michael Gove. The ceremonial duties of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster are so quaintly Elizabethan that reading them aloud can double as an audition for Richard II at the Globe. But Gove’s real post is Minister for Getting Things Done, and the thing he has been assigned to get done now is the most significant matter facing this government.
As the Scottish Daily Mail revealed last week, Gove has been appointed to chair a new subcommittee of the Cabinet on Union policy. I understand there is growing alarm in the UK Government about the threat to the Union, and with it an increasing impatience with the Cameron-era policy of appeasement. Theresa May broke with her predecessor on this strategy but she did not take many in government with her. Now, I am led to believe, there is at last the appetite for a fightback.
Downing Street has been convinced by three factors. The first is Brexit. There are no plans to extend the transition period, so ministers are aware that a fresh battle over repatriated powers is looming. The second, and related, concern is the UK single market, something the Nationalists deny exists but also seek to use to their advantage. There is growing recognition that the absence of formal institutions and governance principles is a structural flaw in this market.
The third factor is Covid-19. The pandemic has opened more eyes at Westminster to the scale of what has already been devolved and how this frustrates the centre’s ability to coordinate national responses to national emergencies. The penny has finally dropped with an almighty clatter.
That it has taken the Tories so long to arrive at fairly self-evident conclusions is a testament to their unforgivable neglect of the Union. GK Chesterton observed: ‘The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.’ The mistakes of devolution were Labour’s but across a decade in office the Tories have failed to put them right and during the Cameron years actually made them worse.
Still, there is more joy in Heaven and all that, so the fact that Downing Street appreciates the need to go on the counter-offensive is welcome. Gove will coordinate that counter-attack, a development that should be met with relief by those who value the United Kingdom.
Relief, but nothing more. Gove is a fine strategist and has the nerve for a fight, but he assumes the mantle of the Union’s Field Marshal Montgomery. He must reverse losses and recover territory then continue to push the enemy back further. It is not enough to win at El-Alamein; the Union must prevail at Tunis, Sicily, Normandy, and beyond. Years of ignorance, cowardice and complacency have come at great cost and great effort will be required to reassert the Union.
That reassertion will require a recalibration of devolution so that it serves the needs of the Scottish people but can no longer be used as a battering ram against the United Kingdom.
Part of the Prime Minister’s ‘New Deal’ is using the Shared Prosperity Fund to invest directly in Scotland, something I have previously argued for. That is good news but Gove must make it clear to the Prime Minister that money is not enough. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been single-handedly propping up the Scottish economy for over three months now and public opinion has actually shifted against the Tories.
The SNP is waging a war of attrition using culture, identity and captured institutions as its artillery and Westminster is sending accountants into battle in response. Michael Gove must change this. It is no secret that he has ambitions for higher office but even if he achieves it almost nothing he could do in Number 10 would be of comparable import to the duty that now rests on his shoulders. It is no stretch to say, though it may make him shudder to hear, that the future of the Union is in his hands.
He must articulate a Conservative approach that puts the unity of the UK at the heart of our constitution and reorients devolution back to its original, bread-and-butter functions. The Scottish Parliament exists to run public services in a way that is attuned to distinct Scottish needs and circumstances. It is not a rival seat of sovereign power. Gove should urge an end to the one-way ratchet towards secession by recommending a presumption against further power transfers to Holyrood, with any additional devolution subject to a test of its likely impact on the Union.
If he succeeds in standing athwart devolution and yelling ‘Stop’, Gove will have a creditable achievement to his name. However, this would still leave many of the mistakes uncorrected and, depending on the SNP’s continued progress in exploiting devolution to advance separation, it might be necessary to consider more radical steps.
A principle of our constitution is that Parliament cannot bind future incarnations of itself. The Scotland Acts are therefore not holy writs and are subject to revision as Parliament deems fitting. A future Scotland Act that redraws the devolution settlement to preserve the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament and the political integrity of the UK should not be ruled out.
Whatever he chooses to do, Michael Gove will be vilified by not only the SNP but the commentariat, the academics, the ‘creatives’, the third-sector core-funding-seekers, and the weak-kneed among the pro-Union ranks. He should treat the intensity of their hatred as a barometer of his effectiveness. He has a very short space of time to make himself as reviled as Michael Forsyth once was but I have no doubt he will give it his all.
The Union is the defining issue of our times. I wish it wasn’t. I wish it was reducing poverty or improving education or marshalling technology to improve health outcomes. The nationalists will not allow us to move on to these matters until they get what they want and will continue to use devolution to pursue their constitutional goal.
Those who oppose that goal have a choice: give in and give them what they want, or change devolution so it can no longer deliver what they want.
Kirsty Blackman’s resignation as SNP deputy leader at Westminster is a matter of keen regret, regardless of your politics. The 34-year-old cited quarantine’s impact on her mental health, adding that people ‘must be able to talk openly’ about these issues.
Her resignation raises questions about the support provided by political parties and Parliament and Blackman is right that we ought to talk more openly. There is no shame in being ill, even if that illness is invisible to everyone else. The shame is in the failure to treat mental health with parity to physical health.
In order to practise what I preach, I should say that lockdown has been a struggle for me too. I have written about my own battles with depression and panic attacks before and, though I didn’t go into lockdown in the best state, I am set to come out of it measurably worse.
The mental health fallout of Covid-19 is beginning to hit and we are as poorly prepared for it as we were for the virus itself.
The Scots will thole many indignities and oppressions but do not get between us and a pint. When England’s pubs reopened on Saturday, the Meadow House in Berwick-Upon Tweed was among them. But publican Marc McDonald noticed something different about his clientele. ‘About 70 per cent came from Scotland,’ he told the BBC. Makes you proud.