The Disaster of Democracy – a Prime Minister’s Update on the Awesome Foursome
At some point a few years ago Boris Johnson coined the awkward phrase ‘the Awesome Foursome” to describe the four nations of the UK. I think this was before he appointed himself Minister for the Union. It was meant to be an update on the now embarrassing “Family of Nations” slogan or the worse “Partnership of Equals”. Now he has blurted out the truth about his contempt for the devolution settlement as his Prime Ministership staggers from one disaster to another.
I preferred the era when the Tories were ruthless and mercenary. The plummy patrician Malcolm Rifkind or the oleaginous Michael Forsyth wouldn’t have stumbled into the communications fiasco of today’s double-act of Douglas Ross and Boris Johnson. It’s difficult for Ross and his cohorts to sustain a case for the Union when they (never mind us) are treated with such abject contempt. This morning Downing Street is not attempting to deny reports that Boris Johnson’s told Tory MPs that “devolution has been a disaster north of the border” and was “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”. Instead they are desperately spinning away. Just as we were told that Dominic Cummings departure was to herald new mood music and a “re-set” relations with Europe and Scotland, it turns out that too is baloney. The Herald’s Michael Settle faithfully reported: ‘The departure of Dominic Cummings from No 10 gives Boris Johnson a chance to “reset” his administration, rebuilding relations with the Scottish Government and taking a less dogmatic approach to Scotland, Whitehall insiders have suggested.”
But maybe, inadvertently Boris has stumbled onto the point.
Johnson’s gaff to the Northern Research group just exposed what we already knew: the Tories always opposed devolution; know they can’t ever form an administration north of the border and are facing further humiliation in 2021. Ross’s party will be beaten and a large pro-indy majority will be ascendant. They are desperate and confused and their own policy of suppressing democracy is dragging them inextricably into constitutional mayhem. Some of them now know it.
But two points are worth mentioning. Devolution has had a string of policy successes (under different administrations) most notably: abolishing warrant sales, the smoking ban, the minimum unit price for alcohol, free personal care for the elderly, free higher education, free prescriptions, the baby box, banning smacking, climate change legislation, to name but a few.
But each success just points to our limitations. As Michael Gray has said: “Devolution does fail. We can’t increase minimum wage, stay in the EU, prevent Tory deportations or mistreatment of asylum seekers, protect workers’ rights, end the failed war on drugs, tax wealth, or opt out of illegal wars. Read Scotland Act 1998 Schedule 5. We need independence.”
Johnson, as so often, makes the case for independence compelling.
Devolution has served its time and its usefulness. It has allowed people to see the reality of power relations between the entities within the Union and the limitations of power devolved. This reality has now been thrown into stark relief by the mishandling of the covid crisis and the klepotcratic rule of Ross and Johnson’s party.
Now you have to smile at the talk of “separatists” and “nationalists” from a party that has just delivered an end to freedom of movement. The Tories efforts to back-fill and cover-up Johnson’s gaffs just make things worse. Here’s Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick on Sky News making things (much) worse:
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick says devolution has been “misused” in Scotland by the SNP ‘to drive a wedge between people who are ultimately part of the same country’.
— SkyNews (@SkyNews) November 17, 2020
“One of the downsides in Scotland is it’s been misused by the SNP to drive a wedge between people who are ultimately part of the same country with hundreds of years of history and friendship and partnership and the PM is very concerned by that. You can see that by the actions the government has been doing – the UK Internal Market Bill that’s currently going through parliament which sets out to strengthen the Union, to make it easier and more certain for goods and services and people to travel around the Union. These are the sorts of things the government is going to do to strengthen the United Kingdom in the years ahead.”
“The disaster he is referring to is the rise of separatism and nationalism in the form of the SNP…”
“Any of us who love the United Kingdom … who believe that we’re much stronger as one Union believe its very disheartening to see people trying to break up the Union and trying to take any opportunity to sow dissent and grievance where there is none. The Prime Minister is absolutely – as is the whole government to keep the whole Union together … and to persuade our friends and neighbours that they are better off … you know … to remain within the United Kingdom and that is the mission of the government in the years ahead …”
On retrospect Jenrick might not have been the best candidate for this interview but admittedly they are selecting from a limited range of options.
What’s striking is not just his complete ignorance of the politics of the situation but this idea that the “the rise of separatism and nationalism in the form of the SNP…” is somehow a tragedy and a disaster. You can see how this would be the case for the Tories but they seem to have missed out the bit about the SNP being the elected government of Scotland. They haven’t … you know … sneaked in the back door.
Devolution was supposed to cement the Union by containing democracy and placating the natives. Edinburgh and Cardiff as “sapling assemblies” (Hames) is a nice idea but now an indefensible and stupid one. Devolution was supposed to give a little bit of democracy, not too much, just enough to shut everybody up.
To be honest we were well pleased for a while.
Devolution allowed us to think “we exist”, but mere existence doesn’t really satisfy any more, we want to … you now .. do stuff. Boris describing devolution as a mistake is a revelation. But devolution is increasingly a case of mistaken identity.
The Unionist argument seems to be being reduced (daily) to an exasperated whine of incomprehension. “I mean we’ll give you the vaccine!”
“Okay you can have the furlough – even outside England!”
The binfire of Johnson’s regime – and his catalogue of communications errors should be put in the context this week of Gordon Brown’s plaintive Son of the Manse appeals for a “time for healing” and his suggestion that “Holding an independence referendum in Scotland during a pandemic and a recession “is not the right time at all”.
Brown’s intervention, which seems to be on a perpetual loop, are losing some of their impact, and to be clear their impact was diminished to begin with. His ever-presence on the public broadcaster is a nod to a bygone era when deference to establishment Labour was unquestioned. He is no longer an MP nor an MSP yet seems to have some ethereal status as an elder statesman who can ghost into public life on command.
This idea of a spurious “national unity” or that there is some ideal future date is curious. But the Prime Ministers comments can be taken in conjunction with the former Prime Ministers and with the appointment of Anas Sarwar by Scottish Labour to their front-bench as constitution spokesman as signs of convergence.
Scottish Labour replacing the more pragmatic Alex Rowley with the more unionist Anas Sarwar is a sure sign that they are doubling-down. The Unionists are once-again in lock-step.
We are left with the idea that devolution is a tactic of suppressing democracy not an expression of it and that the Union is a vehicle for denying democratic voice for decades to come.
This isn’t really about “nationalism” any more.
As I’ve said before, the conditions are changing quickly now so that what we are being forced to create is a movement for Scottish democracy.