14 December 2019
Boris Johnson will inevitably turn down demands for a Scottish referendum but this is not sustainable in the long term. He must engage or risk serious trouble ahead
Many things that get described as historic are in reality soon forgotten. Thursday’s Conservative election victory will not be one of them. This was an extraordinary result that has redrawn the political map of Britain. A party seeking what was effectively a fourth term in office after a prolonged period during which the country has suffered falling living standards and unprecedented austerity not only gained seats but swept to an 80-seat majority. In the process the Tories won swathes of seats in parts of the north of England that have long been regarded as Labour heartlands and held on to six in Scotland they had been tipped to lose.
The result surely brings to a dramatic end what has been one of the longest periods of political volatility in modern Britain. In the decade since the start of the global financial crisis Britain has endured four general elections, two referendums, a coalition and a minority government during which many pressing challenges went unaddressed. That can change.
Most of the credit for this victory belongs to Boris Johnson. This was an intensely personal result for him. He gambled on Brexit and he gambled again on holding this election to secure a mandate to complete Britain’s exit from the European Union. There were times in between these two campaigns when it had appeared that his own career was finished. It sometimes appeared unlikely that the Tory party itself would survive. Instead it is his opponents that are in disarray.
Mr Johnson is master of all he surveys. He now enjoys a degree of political freedom on a par with Margaret Thatcher in the aftermath of her 1983 landslide and Tony Blair in 1997. On both those occasions it took the opposition three elections to make themselves electable again. The prime minister’s first task must be to resolve the issue that has dominated the past four years and has destabilised the Tory party for the past quarter of a century. Mr Johnson will now face no difficulty pushing his Brexit withdrawal bill through parliament in the coming days.
That will enable Britain to finally leave the EU on January 31 without the distraction and prolonged bitterness of a second referendum. Mr Johnson’s attention will then need to turn quickly to securing an ambitious deal with the EU that preserves as much as possible of Britain’s trade and security relationships with the EU. That will require him to do what neither he nor his predecessor Theresa May have so far been willing to do: to be honest with the British people about the trade-offs required. As EU leaders reiterated yesterday an ambitious trade deal will hinge on Britain accepting a high degree of regulatory alignment. Mr Johnson should make pursuing such a deal his priority even if that means disappointing those in his party who would prefer to pursue the chimera of a trade deal with the US and indeed President Trump himself.
Mr Johnson signalled yesterday that he understood the responsibility he bears to those who backed Brexit and voted Tory for the first time. He has rightly reached out to Remainers and promised to try to unite a deeply divided country. That must include preserving the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. That the Union is now in danger should not be in doubt.
This Tory victory is likely to increase recruits to the cause of Scottish independence. The question now is how Mr Johnson deals with what is one of the biggest challenges of his premiership. The expectation is that he will simply dig in his heels and refuse to grant the section 30 order that Nicola Sturgeon will request in the coming days, and which she needs to hold a legal vote on Scotland going it alone. He will simply say no. Then no again. Then continue to say no. The prime minister’s problem is that this is an unsustainable position in the long term. Scotland’s presence in the United Kingdom has to be voluntary, not enforced. Can a British government really deny Scotland the right of self-determination it allows Northern Ireland, for example, where a consistent majority for reunification must by law lead to a public vote?
The risk is that blunt intransigence from a Johnson government simply stokes the fires of Scottish independence to the point that it risks civil unrest. This is a real possibility. A glance at divisions in Catalonia shows what happens when a nationalist movement comes up against an unaccommodating state. In a letter to The Times today Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s most eminent historian, warns of “an unprecedented constitutional crisis”. This is no overstatement.
The Times has always supported the Union. It did so during the 2014 referendum and it does so now. No convincing case for Scottish independence has yet been made. The ties that bind these islands are strong. We would all be diminished — socially, economically, culturally — if they were ever to be broken. Yet supporting the Union does not mean fixing it in aspic forever.
The Conservative Party opposed Scottish devolution throughout the second half of the 20th century, although Edward Heath had a brief wobble in 1968 with what became known as the Declaration of Perth. On the matter of Scotland, the Tories have been the party of the constitutional status quo. Yet when David Cameron saw the result of the 2014 independence referendum he acknowledged that demands for Scottish autonomy required a Tory response. A process of reform was necessary to ensure the Union was still fit for purpose.
The result was the Smith Commission that reinvented the devolution settlement, handing new responsibilities to Holyrood on taxation and welfare, increasing accountability and reducing the scope for Scots to blame Westminster for their ills. This was wise, and Mr Johnson can learn from this wisdom. He can ignore Scotland and watch the flames grow higher. Or he can engage with Scotland on its own terms and avoid it becoming a running sore for his government in the way Europe was for his predecessors. Mr Johnson is not a politician bound by ideology. He has the parliamentary majority to quell any potential dissent. He has the chutzpah to challenge received wisdom about what is and is not the orthodox Tory position. Most of all he has his own self-interest to consider.
Avoiding another referendum on Scottish independence may prove impossible. If at some point in the future one is necessary, those arguing for a United Kingdom will need to have an offering for the Scottish electorate. The Union they propose will have to be dynamic and capable of change. The time to start considering what that change might entail is now. This newspaper backed Mr Johnson to become prime minister in July and again in the election because it has always believed that his instincts were those of a centre-right One Nation Tory. He has won a historic victory. Now he must show that he can become a historic prime minister.
You can access the full article on The Times website here.