Boris Johnson and The Ice Flow
If and when the Tory Party in England chooses Boris Johnson (or even Jeremy Hunt) as the next Prime Minister, in theory this doesn’t really change much in Scotland. In practice though, what it will tell us about England, and what it tells England about itself, changes everything on both sides of the border.
It’s not the men themselves who will change things. It’s not as if Boris Johnson (or even Jeremy Hunt) can instantly change either the parliamentary arithmetic on Brexit in Westminster any more than they can change the negotiating stance of the European Union.
It’s what the Tory leadership election tells us about the Tory electors that really matters…even…or especially…because “we” (the Unions of England with Scotland and with Northern Ireland) are almost wholly uninvolved except as a whiny and annoying distraction from the serious English business (or total fantasy world) of Brexit.
The only way Brexit was ever going to “work” was if it precipitated a general collapse in the institutions of the European Union. You may have noticed that this hasn’t happened, despite what its paymasters were hoping. Britain outside of the EU is still part of the European economy and is therefore bound to make a deal with the EU at some point, as long as the EU still runs that economy.
No Deal Brexit is thus as chimerical and unreal a prospect as Brexit itself has turned out to be. What will matter in the long term, in the words of the Clash is “Something about England.” Which will in turn matter to Scotland, Ireland North and South and Wales. Not necessarily in that order.
Just as the referendum in Scotland in September 2014 changed forever who gets to make the decisions about Scotland’s constitutional future, (no matter what the outcome was) so the Brexit referendum in June 2016 changed forever how sovereignty works in England.
Now nowhere in these islands is the Crown in Parliament Sovereign any more. We have become “Europeanised.” The people, the electorate are sovereign. What is more, they are sovereign in each of the four nations of the “only just United” Kingdom.
This brings us back to Boris. Just as the next Prime Minister will have a choice of accepting the Brexit terms of the annoyingly still existing EU sooner (the May Deal, backstop and all) or later…(the same only slightly worse)… so he will only really have two choices about the next general election.
He, whether it’s Boris or Jeremy, will either have to call an election sooner, in order to get any version of Brexit through the Commons…or later, hoping against hope that Brexit will have been such a huge success as to ride the Tories to victory on a wave of relief and patriotic enthusiasm.
Whether he goes for sooner or later, the decisive factor is, of course, not Nicola Sturgeon but Nigel Farage. Either Boris or Jeremy will have to gamble that they can make such a success of Brexit that they can call an election next year having eliminated Farage as an electoral factor…or they can make a deal with him now, secretly or otherwise, and call an early election.
If I had to bet the house on one of these options, I’d bet on “sooner”…and that means that Boris will have to do a deal, publicly or not, with Nigel Farage.
If that scenario seems far fetched with Jeremy Hunt as Prime Minister, to me it seems downright inevitable once Boris Johnson has his feet behind the desk in Number 10. I would be astonished if talks between his people and Farage’s were not already well underway.
I would also be astonished if such a prospect didn’t give an almighty boost in popularity to the idea of a second Indyref in Scotland. But what else might Boris Johnson in Number Ten mean for Scotland, where, you’ll remember, sovereignty of decision on the constitution unarguably passed to the people in 2014?
I think it means two things.
First, if and when the electorate of the Tory party in England choose Boris Johnson as the next Prime Minister for Scotland, a second independence referendum becomes absolutely inevitable in the next five years.
Further, if, with or without a deal with Farage, Boris Johnson calls a general election and wins it, inevitably entirely on the back of votes in England, then the result of that referendum in Scotland is going to be very different.
This is not because of Boris himself. One English Tory Prime Minister more or less is not the decisive factor here. What is decisive is England’s choice. If the Tory party in England choose Boris Johnson they are consciously choosing to ignore the Union. If the English electorate subsequently confirm him as their Prime Minister, they are just as consciously voting to end it.
The beginning of the union was England’s choice. The End of the Union will be England’s choice as well.
The Independence referendum in 2021, like the devolution referendum in 1997, will be a vote to effectively ratify an End of the Union that has already happened. It was always thus. It wasn’t the Easter Rising itself that was fatal to the Union with Ireland in 1916. It was the brutality with which England chose to respond to it.
Just as Nietszche discovered with God in the 1880s, so the British people will discover in the 2020s that the Union is already dead in the hearts of our contemporaries. Indeed, the “deadness” of the wholly negative “Better Together” campaign in 2014 was as much a clue to the condition of the corpse as the Remain campaign in 2016.
My guess…for what it ends up being worth… is that the Scottish elections in 2021 will ratify a decision to hold another referendum, with Westminster’s consent (which will be given by a new Labour or Tory administration in London). My guess for a date is September 2021…and long, boring negotiations will then begin with both London and Brussels.
Anyway at that point the hard work of redefining our relationships with the rest of these islands and with Europe will begin. This will be a job for the next generation of Scottish political leadership, probably.
Whether we call this inevitable change Independence or not in a few years is another question. No doubt we’ll have lots of esoteric and hugely irritating fights about it. But, insofar as such a thing is meaningful in 21st Century Europe, Independence is what it will be.
When “we lost” in 2014, history did not come a stop. The ice kept flowing. The accident of the Tory leadership contest in 2019 shows us where the ice has already reached, just like the accident of the death of John Smith did in 1994. And its direction, as I suspect he and Donald Dewar both knew, is as sure as the rise and fall of glaciers.