Shy Imperial Bombast
Was it arrogance or lunacy that made Boris Johnson think that arriving north the day after announcing he had presided over 100,000 deaths to declare he “believed in the power of doing things together” would be a popular move? It’s difficult to tell. The hubris and exceptionalism of the UK government and the governing class that Johnson personifies knows no bounds. Johnson’s visit was conducted like a covert operation, and his only comments were babbling incoherence: “If [the vaccine is] approved then we will have 60m doses of it by the end of this year for the whole of the British people. And so it’s a success for Scotland. Uh, it’s a success for, uh, Britain and, uh, it’s a success for Britain because it is a success for Scotland. It’s a success for Scotland because it’s a success for Britain. So, uh, I’m, uh, you know, it was very, very encouraging to see …”.
The unaccountable and the un-electable don’t need to make sense.
This was Shy Imperial Bombast. For all the arrogance and self-entitlement Johnson isn’t sure enough of himself to make an appearance in public. The optics might not be so good. As John Crace put it: “The prime minister’s unusual mission was to go to Scotland to avoid meeting as many Scots as possible.”
The Conservative messaging is this: you are too impoverished to survive without our benevolence; we have been generous in gifting you our vaccine; your democratic expression is meaningless. Be grateful.
Unsurprisingly this is going down like a cup of cold sick. Only a self-deluded man surrounded by a team high on the wonderful success of Brexit would operate like this. Thankfully the Prime Minister is just such a man. After the Sunday Times polling we now know that the Union is imperiled on all four fronts. If the British government lied to the Welsh, they have also created the circumstances which, as Nicola Sturgeon said in an interview to the Irish Times this week: ‘Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely’.
But if Johnson’s swagger reeks of class privilege, it also stems from the very structure and character of British political rule. As Anthony Barnett has written (‘Why Brexit? It’s the English, stupid’):
“We are not looking at a response to ‘decline’, but at a failure of renewal. A two-part renewal, first Thatcher’s then New Labour’s.
The failure lies in our defining institutions. They have not changed their spirit while the rest of our society has. Enter the routines of Britain’s Westminster politics and you enter a parallel universe. One in which ‘absolute sovereignty’ generates the logic of legitimacy. This may seem ‘abstract’, such is the impoverished nature of public discourse in Anglo-Britain. In fact it is a lived reality. (in Scotland or Ireland, what I say is blindingly obvious.)
Absolute sovereignty is an imperial form of rule. It generates an immensely strong structure of feeling within the parliamentary universe of Westminster politics. So strong, it has been able to resist the contemporary world despite all the change around it. Aided by the way – and this is an important part of my argument – its bellicose winner-takes-all culture feeds and is fed by the media values of Murdoch and the Daily Mail.
The consequence is dire. The United Kingdom is an old, multi-national uncodified entity. An arrangement that cannot but feel threatened within a larger, younger, constitutionalising entity. The latter, the EU, is about sharing sovereignty. The core principle of the former, the UK, is absolute sovereignty.”
So Johnson’s reckless arrogance emanates not only from a rarefied upbringing but from a consciousness of absolute sovereignty. This outlook has been boosted and amplified by the rhetoric of ‘Global Britain’ and ‘Britannia Unleashed’ even as fish lie rotting, 100,000 people die, endemic corruption is exposed and industries collapse. The idea of cleaving to this madness is untenable and indefensible. You would have to be pathological to do so in these circumstances.
Despite the framing from some factions within the independence movement that we are impotent and powerless in the face of such a leader, I really don’t think we are at all – and the situation and the dynamic is fast-changing. In an article on Political.Betting the Editor, Alastair Meeks makes a compelling case. He argues first that “If the Scottish government acts in accordance with a non-binding instruction of the Scottish Parliament and does not break any other laws along the way, it is not obvious to see how its actions can properly be challenged.”
“Which leads me onto the next question: what laws do you need to have in place to set up a referendum? There is a lot of electoral law in place, but that’s already there and will automatically cover any vote that comes within its scope. Much of the rest is declaratory rather than breaking new ground. Most of the machinery of holding a referendum is administrative. On this occasion, even the question to be asked is oven-ready.”
Secondly he argues that: ” …such a referendum would be advisory only. But so was the referendum in 2014. For that matter, so was the Brexit referendum in 2016. So the SNP’s plan looks likely to me to work. If the British government wants to challenge the SNP’s plans, it will do so with a substantial chance of ending up with the SNP having their referendum validated by the courts, and having alienated the Scottish public in the process. If it doesn’t challenge the SNP’s plans, it will look timid and powerless. So perhaps the safest approach for the British government would be to agree to a referendum after all.”
Johnson, with his innate sense of superiority is used to being in control has a choice. He either watches as the political situation in Scotland unfolds out of control and support for the Union collapses further until it is irredeemable, or he has a chance to shape some of the terms under which the process is made. He will choose the latter.
But the Conservatives current strategy relies on getting people in Scotland to trust them and to be grateful for the way the coronavirus has been handled. Here’s where Vaccine Nationalism meets Spitfire Nationalism. Here’s Michael Gove in The Sun (with accompanying soldier): “Eighty vaccine centres across Scotland are being set up by the Armed Forces, ensuring every part of our country feels the benefit of the Oxford AstraZeneca treatment.”
Anthony Barnett’s observation that the United Kingdom as an old, multi-national uncodified entity “cannot but feel threatened by a younger, constitutionalising entity” is as true of its relationship to Europe as it is to its relationship with Scotland.
The Union will be ended as much by these dynamics and the delusion of the elite as anything else. The sense of success even in the face of such abject failure is unremitting. Ewen Stewart is just one example of this blinding British exceptionalism (‘The separatists cannot be appeased’). He writes:
“The Union has had overwhelming popular support throughout the UK for almost its entire history. Initial Scottish scepticism soon receded as Scotland flourished with free trade, peace and a much larger market for its ideas and products. Challenges to the throne in 1715 and 1745 were just that, the Old and Young Pretenders’ intentions were to change the monarch of Great Britain – not to break with the Union of parliaments of 1707 and establish political independence for Scotland. It was a very British civil war.
Today some polls suggest the separatists are gaining in strength. Some argue they have a majority. That is highly debatable but a nation that has endured so much in peace and war does not give up simply because the Sunday Times says so.”
He reaches a magnificent crescendo declaring: “The United Kingdom will prevail because we are ultimately one people, with one language, a long, rich and shared culture and family history. But the greatest risk to its future is so called Unionist politicians panicking and throwing fuel on the fire. More Europe was the ‘solution’ that led to Brexit – more devo is a ‘solution’ that will lead to Scexit. There is no crisis as there will be no Scottish referendum.”
This sort of delirium will be their end.