The Prime Minister’s choice of words has landed him in hot water again this week, as leaked reports from a meeting with Tory MPs have him calling Scottish devolution a “disaster” and a “mistake”.
A spokesperson for Number 10 was quick to clarify that Johnson’s comments were really just a run-of-the-mill political attack on the SNP, and that the PM has “always supported devolution”.
“Always” doesn’t mean always, however, as the Conservative party opposed devolution in the referenda of 1979 and 1997. The Tories’ modern day “support” for devolution is also dubious, as this minor scandal comes at a time when devolved governments have accused the UK Government of undermining their devolved powers.
The passage of the Internal Market Bill, which is also controversial for its de facto abrogation of the Northern Ireland border protocol agreed with the EU, has been called a “power grab” by the Scottish and Welsh governments (the Welsh Labour government, by the way, are hardly the “separatists” Johnson and Co rage against). The bill mandates what powers over which areas of government will be reserved to Westminster or devolved once they have been repatriated from the EU.
The devolved administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff say the devolution status quo means they should have all the powers over areas not specifically reserved, and anything short of this represents an attack on devolution.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon responded to the PM’s comments by tweeting: “Worth bookmarking these PM comments for the next time Tories say they’re not a threat to the powers of the Scottish Parliament – or, even more incredibly, that they support devolving more powers.”
Meanwhile, the Scottish Tories are once again forced to try and limit the damage done to their image by another BoJo PR blunder. Leader Douglas Ross explained that what Johnson meant to say is that devolution is not a disaster, but the SNP are.
Repeating the Tory mantra that the SNP have an “obsession” with independence to the detriment of all else, Ross simply shows his own obsession with the SNP’s stance on independence.
The implication is quite clear. The rise of the SNP is taken as evidence of the failure of devolution, which was originally intended to cut across Scottish nationalist sentiment, rather than institutionalise it.
The long-term decline of British capitalism and the betrayals of Blairism however drove Scottish workers into the arms of the SNP and pushed up support for independence. The Tories blame Labour for creating the outlet for this discontent, which now threatens the break-up of the UK.
From the SNP’s point of view, the PM’s attacks on devolution are a gift. It just further makes the case the SNP are attempting to prove to all classes of Scottish society: that the national interest of Scotland is at best only partially served by devolution, which is under threat from a reactionary Brexiteer Tory government, and that independence is therefore a democratic necessity.
At the same time, however, Boris Johnson’s bluster about devolution shows the intransigence towards the SNP runs deep in the Conservative party. In the face of rising support for independence, which now regularly breaks the 50% threshold in polling, the Tory government is steadfast in its refusal to grant permission to the Scottish government to hold an independence referendum.
There is no doubt that most of the MPs would have been nodding along in agreement with Johnson as he spoke ill of devolution. It is interesting that these comments were made to the ‘Northern Research Group’ of MPs who threatened to rebel against the Government over coronavirus restrictions, demanding more local control and financial support. Is the Prime Minister trying to nip something in the bud here?
If one thing is clear, it is that the “One Nation Tory” approach to government touted by Boris Johnson at the launch of his premiership is a relic from the past, firmly uprooted by Britain’s imperial decline.
Johnson, who is obsessed with his own self-image, hoped to secure a legacy as a “Churchillian” Prime Minister who “Got Brexit Done”. No doubt he will be remembered for his calamitous handling of Brexit, as well as one of the world’s worst COVID-19 mortality rates. We may well be able to add to that the breakup of the 300 year old union with Scotland. Quite a legacy, indeed.