2007 - 2021

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.

Comments (24)

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  1. Liz says:

    Cannot wait. Thank goodness devolution has been the start of that inevitable journey to where Scotland must take it’s own place with other nations.

  2. Swiss Toni says:

    Immediately after the 2014 referendum, a poll by Lord Ashcroft asked respondents to name the most important issues which determined how they voted.

    EU membership was ranked 7th out of 11 options by NO voters and only 8th by YES voters.

    Therefore it is difficult to see how one can logically argue that Brexit ought to trigger IndyRef 2.

    Worth remembering that Alex Salmond forecast in 2014 White Paper that Scotland would be running a fiscal deficit between 2.5% and 3.2% of GDP in 2016/17. The deficit is currently 7.9%, the highest in Europe, and more than double the maximum of 3% mandated by the EU Growth and Stability Pact.

    1. Peter Arnott says:

      Hi Toni. In the piece I argue not that it’s Brexit which makes the difference. It’s Boris.

      1. Swiss Toni says:

        Hi Peter

        I can’t see the logic of basing one’s feeling of belonging to a nation or otherwise on which here-today gone-tomorrow politician happens to be in charge.

        I don’t renounce my Scottish identity because I don’t particularly care for Nicola Sturgeon.

        Having been lucky enough to have lived and worked in Staffordshire, Belfast and London, I feel a great deal of empathy with people from the rest of the UK and am glad to have a dual Scottish/British identity.

        The idea that Scottish and English people are fundamentally different is completely alien to my own experiences. The majority of the population are not political animals and do not judge their fellow man by how they vote.

        1. Wul says:


          You would keep your Scottish/British identity in an independent Scotland. It wouldn’t be affected.

          You are a citizen of Great Britain at present and “Great Britain” is the collection of islands & landmass that make up the British Isles. The citizens of an independent Scotland would be Scottish and also British Isles citizens. Do you feel you are a UK-ish citizen? I don’t.

          You will no longer be an EU citizen after October’19 though ( maybe), so remaining in the UK has already lost you citizenship of 27 countries.

          1. Swiss Toni says:

            I don’t feel anything like the affinity with Italy and Slovenia, compared to England and Northern Ireland.

            I grew up listening to Jam, Smiths, Undertones and Manic Street Preachers and reading CS Lewis, George Orwell, Charles Dickens and Dylan Thomas.

            I supported Alex Higgins, Gareth Edwards, Daley Thompson and Manchester United. I watched Grange Hill, Boys From The Blackstuff, Auf Widesehen Pet and Blackadder.

            I am extremely happy and proud to be a UK citizen.

    2. Strategist says:

      >>>The deficit is currently 7.9%, the highest in Europe
      Whose numbers are those, and are they credible?

      1. Swiss Toni says:

        These are the numbers from the GERS Report published by the Scottish Government

    3. Jim Fraser says:

      Really, it’s not that difficult at all. So many of us took our European Union membership for granted in 2014. So many of us, now that it is threatened, have realised how important to us (and our children, and their children).

    4. Sarissa says:

      The GERS 17-18 deficit of 7.9% is calculated including a population based pro-rata contribution to servicing the National Debt and a Defence budget including nuclear weapons, blue-water navy and worldwide operational response capability.

      Take those out of the equation and the figure is below 5%, before looking at individual items like HS2, London/SE biased housing benefit payments, water & sewage as public expenditure etc.

      The economics of an independent Scotland will be radically different from the current Westminster controlled version.

      1. Swiss Toni says:

        SNP Growth Commission estimates deficit at 6% using similar adjustments to yours.

        Let’s not get bogged down in the fractions of percentage points – it is not a sustainable position. EU members have to agree to keep below 3% and currently only Cyprus (4.8%) is non compliant.

        What specific actions would an independent Scotland take to reduce the deficit which are not possible at the present time?

        1. Al says:

          Tax oil and gas at source.

          1. Swiss Toni says:

            Oil and gas is already taxed at source via Petroleum Revenue Tax

    5. Wul says:

      All that stuff about the sacred “7.9% deficit” is just pish and smokescreen.

      All that matters is whether enough Scottish people want to run their own country. Scotland has what it needs, in terms of resources, to become a successful prosperous nation. Even die hard unionists will admit that. It’s a matter of willpower, not finance.

      1. Swiss Toni says:

        Agree…. but why do independence supporters never admit that separation from the UK will mean a combination of tax increases and public spending cuts in the medium term?

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Swiss Toni, perhaps many independence voters understand that cutting one’s cloth to suit one’s coat (by, say, cutting expenditure on subsidising fossil fuels and the rich) is essential, and that prevalent exorbitance (living high on the exploitation of other people, the living environment and foreign resources) is unsustainable? Maybe, maybe not. But how many of the status quo worshippers are living in a dreamland?

  3. Tom Phran Thurso says:

    Fairly sure that the result of the once in a lifetime/generation 2014 referendum was that Scotland’s “constitutional future” was to remain part of the UK in which, since 1707, we have contributed far,far more to the world than any country of similar size.

    Unless we are in some Orwellian state in which NO means YES ??

    1. Al says:

      Aye but some people have died since then and some born so this time it will be once in some other people’s like time.

      1. Wul says:

        Tom PT,
        Can you provide a source or link to a formal promise from Scottish Govt. that they would only hold a referendum once in this generation?

        Always puzzles me why this is trotted out as some kind of constitutional law. A politician being interviewed says; “this is a once in a generation opportunity”. It’s a figure of speech. And, in my 55 years on this planet, it has so far been an accurate one. It’s the only opportunity I’ve ever had to vote for Scotland to run itself.

        If that’s the best argument you have; “we had democracy 5 years ago, I dinnae want it again” then your argument is a very poor one.

        1. Swiss Toni says:

          Google Salmond + once in a generation

  4. indyman says:

    Westminster is going for war in Iran because they can then declare a state of emergency and suspend Holyrood. Goodbye what’s left of civil liberties and the sham of democracy that exists at the moment. They are so terrified of losing Scottish resources they will try anything. I hope the SNP is preparing for this.

    1. Willie says:

      Yes I think your comment about a war with Iran could very much be on the cards.

      Iran, Iraq, and now potentially Iran will put the backbone back into Britain and the public will have no choice in the matter.

      And with a reservoir of young men and women ready to be sacrificed in the defence (?) of our country our Brittanic pride will swell at their sacrifice.

      Iran however will be a bigger chew than Iraq ever was. But hey ho, off to war, it’s not our choice.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    The UK electorate have seldom had much option in foreign policy, which may be why so many seized on the Brexit referendum. And as the Elitist Britain 2019 data shows, diplomats remain part of the old aristocracy of private schools and (increasingly!) Oxbridge:

    Historically, representation has been downplayed in favour of “strong and stable government”, but that is going to take some time to recover. So an electable party (or pact) which promises proportional representation could change the political calculations, especially if it promises early elections under a new system. The Conservatives under Johnson or Hunt would, I guess, be particularly vulnerable to such an attack, having gained power through a small electorate (and an unappealing choice of candidates even by Conservative standards).

    Presumably there are many non-democratic UK voters who believe some are born to rule, but many could still be put off by traits in a Prime Minister. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, the anointed King Richard II has been deposed by the ‘politician’ Henry Bolingbroke who affects a man-of-the-people role, something that his own aristocratic enemies now have to pay attention to, as Worcester scolds his nephew Hotspur (Act III scene i, intriguingly missing from the 1979 BBC adaptation) on his fault (largely of wanton wind-uppery):
    “Yet oftentimes it doth present harsh rage,
    Defect of manners, want of government,
    Pride, haughtiness, opinion and disdain:
    The least of which, haunting a nobleman,
    Loseth men’s hearts;”
    Yet it is ultimately Henry IV’s failure to launch a crusade in time that opens the door to domestic revolt.

    Henry V learns all these lessons and unites England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by a war against France, committing/threatening war crimes with gusto, although even he hangs soldiers for looting churches.

    If you consider Johnson’s time as Foreign Secretary, the crisis that British diplomacy is in (over, say, decolonization), and the lack of scope for a popular war (as UK foreign policy is increasingly dictated by USAmerican cause du jour, the possibility that diplomacy may be not just devolved (Hunt wanted to withdraw Nichola Sturgeon’s FCO support if she talked about Independence with foreign leaders, it seems) but increasingly carried out by ordinary people, could be a significant challenge to centralized political authority. Perhaps the town-twinning that people tried to mend bridges with post-war is now surpassed by other expressions of solidarity and exchanges of culture that effectively bypasses the old elites-talking-to-friendly-elites-and-malcontents-of-enemy-states way of doing things.

  6. Wul says:

    They made a mistake allowing us Indyref1.

    As David Cameron himself said afterwards: “it was never meant to be that close”. They would go to war with Scotland before they let us go this time. England, outside the EU and without Scotland, would be f**ked.

    However, a convenient war to boost our Bulldog-Dunkirk spirit and allow the draconian measures needed to deny the Jocks any further say in their own future seems more likely to me.

    Happy days. Better together. Strong & Stable. Precious Union. Family of Nations. Protect & Survive.

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