2007 - 2022

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:


“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.”

Oh dear.

“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!”

Healing Time

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.



Comments (28)

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  1. Squigglypen says:

    Christmas come early for the SNP…heh! heh! heh!

  2. Dougie Harrison says:

    Screws deftly driven home in the lid of unionism’s coffin by your skillfully-used journalistic weapon Mike. So thank you. But it’s not on tightly enough yet to bury the bugger! Unionism isnae deid yet alas despite the best efforts of the buffoon in Downing Street.

    I don’t care about the ‘Scots’ Tories; they always opposed devolution anyway, and we’re most unlikely to make many converts to independence from their ranks. Labour is different, or at least, many of the declining bunch of habitual Labour voters in Scotland may be. People with a left and trades union background can be won, and many are already hedging their bets, even amongst a few Labour MSPs, and a lot more thinking trades unionists and normal Labour voters. Some of them can and must be won to independence to inch the steady majority in the polls this year past the 60% mark. When we get there, we will KNOW for certain that we can win independence, whatever the Tories do. Most traditional Labour activistists and supporters want what’s best for Scotland’s future, and at least some of the more perceptive can be won to help create and build independence. And mibbe some LibDems. By good fortune demography is on our side, (as it is in the wee enclave of the northeast of Ireland); a very good ally to have!

    How we get there whilst seeing the emergence of a series of divisions in the ranks of people we have come to regard as faithful independence supporters, and without exacerbating those divisions as we try to augment our ranks, is problematic. But at least some of us are trying. It’s important that you continue to help lead the team Mike.

    Greens apart, there is little underlying political coherence in the SNP or the wider independence movement, other than a commitment to independence, and a in large part general inclination towards social democracy. Fortunately the latter are growing as the SNP matures. The more politically aware in our number have a big and very tricky job to do. Fortunately, it looks like we can continue to rely on the stupidity of Tories in London and Scotland, as well as demography, to help us.

    1. Mick McCready says:

      Spot on , Dougie.
      Glad SNP letter to Johnson on Thatcher’s statement re majority of SNP MPs being mandate for independence.

      1. Dougie Harrison says:

        Thanks Mick. Glad I’m not alone – lockdown-ish certainly doesnie improve my mental stability at times! Sarwar’s LP promotion suggests that Comrade Richard may be as unsusceptible as auld broon to common sense. But there are plenty of others who are.

  3. Axel P Kulit says:

    “I preferred the era when the Tories were ruthless and mercenary.”


    This way we all know what they have been all along.

    It sound like you would prefer a competent oily smooth elected dictatorship to seeing what lies behind the smoke and mirrors.

    Without this series of clueless cockups we would not be close to independence.

    1. It was an attempt at humour.

      1. Axel P Kulit says:


  4. Dougie Blackwood says:

    I like the clips from the Unionist Sky News that are backup for the story.

    It’s not just us being paranoid. Within the ranks of senior Tories Scotland is looked upon as a problem. “Shut up about independence, stop whining because we’re emasculating your pretendy parliaments, eat your porridge and continue supporting England with your taxes and exports” As we watch, the Downing Street buffon spills the beans.

  5. SquirrelTowers says:

    I’m English and Scotland is my home so I know that Scotland is an irrelevance to most people in England, not in nasty way, it just is not that important. Most people in England don’t know very much about Scotland, its a place somewhere north of The North.

    I wonder how much more it will take of things like Brexit or the Internal Market Bill, before some people in Scotland realise that the interests of their family are best served by politicians whose votes depend on them directly, not a load of MPs in Government who frankly couldn’t care less and are more concerned by their voters interests in Surrey and Dorset.

    1. Stewart Lochhead says:

      As an Anglophile I appreciate your short contribution. One of the best I’ve seen today. Another snappy response today is from Richard Murphy, another Englishman…

  6. Daniel Raphael says:

    Speaking of rapidly changing conditions and the struggle for democracy, it might play into the overall political forces and their variable jockeying for position and power, to mention that as I type this, Jeremy Corbyn is up before a hearing that might get him expelled from the Labour Party…and this, at a time when former MP Chris Williamson has joined an increasingly organized movement of people who have left/are leaving Labour to form a genuinely socialist party. I’m not familiar enough with either Scottish politics or with the resonances of internal party politics in England as they impinge northward to speculate about what any of this might mean for the independence struggle…but the accelerating practice of cannibalism within Starmer’s shut-up-don’t-criticize party can’t be without any effect, I’d think.

    Any thoughts about that, Michael?

    1. Too many for here and now. Its complicated.

  7. Tom Ultuous says:

    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”.

    Gobo’s still waiting for his “5 economic tests” to pass so the “UK” can join the euro.

  8. Arboreal Agenda says:

    It’s funny but Tory Unionists basically relied on the strength of Labour in Scotland to maintain the Union. When that collapsed all was up as no way were the Tories going to replace them having burnt their bridges thoroughly in the Thatcher era and the SNP were ready and waiting instead. Johnson can’t or refuses to see this, blaming Labour for devolution and the SNP for doing what their party was set up for instead. He’s so blinkered that he cannot see that virtually every statement and action the Tories have undertaken regarding Scotland, directly or indirectly, since 2010 have increased and broadened the desire for independence. He cannot see that it is the Tory party that is ‘breaking up Britain’, not the SNP.

  9. Craig P says:

    >>We are left with the idea that devolution is a tactic of suppressing democracy


    Tories may not like devolution, but they forget that without it, Scotland would have voted for independence round about the time Ugg boots became a thing.

  10. Cathy Bishop says:

    As a Scottish American I hope Scotland gets freedom not for sentimental reasons but for self protection. They hate you now as much as they did when they threw my g grandma off her land to die in winter. A free Scotland will do what London doesn’t care to do, take care of Scottish people and their dreams properly. Good luck to all.

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      Cathy: I am not sure “They” (Tories> English?… ) Hate us though xenophobic individuals do exist.

      I suspect they dislike us the way a gardener dislikes slugs. A gardener hates slugs in different way to hating Tories/Blacks/Scots/Whoever…. Hate is an emotion to extend only to fellow humans. I am here considering Tories as Human, which is probably true anatomically, though I recall Philip. K Dick’s Replicants, though I forget the title of the story

      1. Daniel Raphael says:

        Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Basis for the movie “Blade Runner.”

        1. Axel P Kulit says:

          Thank you.

      2. Tom Ultuous says:

        Had he been born in Blade Runner days, Johnson would be the sort of man who would’ve called a replicant a “skin job”.

      3. Arboreal Agenda says:

        You suspect wrong. It may serve Scottish nationalism well to demonise the English, even ‘Tories’, but either way, it is blatant bigotry of the very sort you purport to oppose.

      4. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

        The problem with demoralising ‘the Tories’ as subhuman vermin is what’s then to prevent us from gassing them.

        1. Axel P Kulit says:

          Same thing that stops us from hunting foxes and killing badgers: Compassion for all life.

          1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Sentiment has proven an insufficient safeguard in the past, even for foxes and badgers and other furry surrogates. If we rely on feelings of compassion to protect so-called ‘vermin’, it won’t be long until Tory corpses – masqueraded as roadkill – are being dumped at the sides of our roads.

            We should bear this in mind when we’re stirring up hatred.

    2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      ‘A free Scotland will do what London doesn’t care to do, take care of Scottish people and their dreams properly.’

      I remain to be convinced that an independent Scottish government would do this. The devolved government has already led to a disempowerment of our local councils and a nationalisation of so much of our civic life. I suspect independence would only consolidate this power.

  11. SleepingDog says:

    Most people, I would guess, want their polity (their nation or whatever) to be improvable, either continuously over time, or as a heuristic series of trial and error experiments. The defenders of the Union by contrast are continually pitching the opposite, that their (British imperial) state is already world-beating, exceptional, and could only be improved by returning to some fanciful myth of the (often ‘whiter’) past. The younger generation are if anything more conditioned to be Improvers who have less deference and more impatience. And as more hard truths from the past emerge, the Improver position will strengthen. I doubt we have seen anywhere near the potential high-water mark of support for Independence yet, and there are some events coming down the pipeline that could each shift the needle in that direction by significant jumps. Even a devolutionary scandal would likely just remind Scots that the current setup is too much like a mini-Westminster and fuel a greater determination for substantive and decisive change.

  12. Fat Boab says:

    Your comment ”This isn’t really about “nationalism” any more.” I disagree with.

    It is exactly about nationalism; British (read English) nationalism.

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