31 July 2020

Boris Johnson’s Union strategy is a high-stakes gamble

By Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon

Ahead of the visit he made to Scotland last week, Boris Johnson declared the UK to be the ‘most successful political union the world has ever seen’. Its ‘sheer might,’ he said, had been critical during the response to the coronavirus pandemic. This followed the publication by his government of proposals – which are strongly opposed by the devolved administrations – for new arrangements to regulate the UK internal market, and ‘uphold our shared prosperity as a Union’ after Brexit.

It is tempting to view this upsurge of pro-Union rhetoric as an overdue response to the realisation that a fresh crisis over the Scottish constitutional question is looming. The most recent polls suggest that a clear majority now support independence, and that the SNP is on course for a landslide victory in next year’s Holyrood election. And, should avowedly pro-independence parties win a majority next May, the Scottish government’s mandate for demanding that a second independence referendum be held will be greatly strengthened. Assuming that Johnson refuses to acquiesce, which is what he has indicated he would do, then we could be looking at an extended stand-off similar to the situation in Catalonia. There, the Spanish government has refused to allow a referendum on Catalan independence despite pro-referendum majorities being elected to the regional legislature.

But there is more to Johnson’s enthusiastic unionism than this. As we show in a newly-published paper in the journal Political Studies, assertive language about promoting the Union has been the currency in Tory circles for the last few years. Specifically, we show how an older strain of unionism was reinvented during the fraught years of Theresa May’s premiership, in the context of heady talk about regaining national sovereignty from the EU and growing worries about whether Brexit might also pull the UK apart.

During the leadership election contest he won in July 2019, Johnson picked up this mantle with gusto, vowing to be ‘far more vocal in illustrating and explaining the success of the whole UK’. And, on becoming Prime Minister he appointed himself ‘Minister for the Union’.

The Johnson government’s approach to the Union combines hyperbolic rhetoric about its benefits with a distinctive kind of policy agenda. Last year the think tank Policy Exchange urged the UK government to ‘unleash the power of the Union’, and to make this focus integral to the Conservatives’ wider agenda to modernise the country’s infrastructure and economy.

Johnson duly pledged to ‘sense-test and stress-test every policy for the results it may bring to the Union’. Where UK government spending has benefits for Scotland, and indeed Wales, ministers are increasingly keen to highlight this publicly. This he did during his trip across the border last week, trumpeting the UK Treasury’s role in supporting Scottish workers and public services during the pandemic. And this is a message that will be promoted again and again, as his administration have started to wake up to the ways in which the SNP’s and Welsh Labour’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis have served to strengthen them politically – despite various errors that they too have made – while making his own government look careless and remote, by contrast.

The place of Northern Ireland in this new unionist sentiment is, however, much more ambivalent. Johnson’s claims that it remains an integral part of the UK ring hollow given the near certainty that there will be customs checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in the wake of the EU Withdrawal Agreement his own government signed in last 2019. Before this decision, as we show in our article, Tory MPs flip-flopped over whether different regulatory arrangements for Ulster could be accepted in a way that has stirred deeply-held suspicions among Northern Irish unionists about the long term intentions of the British state.

The Conservatives’ determination to sell the merits of the British Union, and to take a more determined public stance against the SNP, mark a shift away from the approach to devolution and territorial politics which was characteristic of British governments from the late 1990s up to Brexit. This was more conciliatory in character – though not without its moments of high tension. David Cameron‘s governments legislated on two occasions to extend the powers of the Scottish Parliament, and agreed to hold the 2014 independence referendum, believing that extending more powers and some financial responsibilities to Scotland would have the effect of undercutting nationalist support.

One of the overlooked, but most important, changes in the current Conservative mindset is to turn away from Cameron’s approach, and Labour’s devolution reforms, with many Tories now openly criticising these for the ways in which they unbalanced the Union. Devolution is increasingly viewed as having given the SNP a platform to dominate Scottish public discourse with pro-independence arguments, with the case for the Union drowned out.

Johnson’s new strategy emerges out of this change of heart in his own party. It also reflects an awareness both that the Scottish question is now key, and that the union of England, Scotland and Wales has to be stabilised – otherwise Johnson and his government could pay a heavy political price.

At the same time, a unionist campaign in Scotland with Johnson as its frontman is an inherently risky endeavour. The recent increase in support for Scottish independence stems, at least in part, from his own unpopularity in Scotland. A Panelbase poll in early July found that 61% of Scots thought Johnson was doing badly in responding to coronavirus (only 14% thought Sturgeon was doing badly). Scots are also still overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit, with 63% saying that they would vote for the UK to rejoin the EU in a hypothetical referendum. When Johnson and Sturgeon clash, as they undoubtedly will over the UK’s internal market plans, the Scottish public is far more likely to side with Sturgeon.

The more demonstrative and urgent approach to the Union which Johnson’s visit heralded reflects an overdue appreciation in London of the extent to which the coronavirus experience has accentuated differences within the UK. And it reflects too an acceptance that the domestic Union ultimately became a secondary issue for most parliamentarians at Westminster during last year’s Brexit crisis, and needs more attention now that the UK has left the EU. Whether Johnson’s high-stakes approach can rescue a deteriorating situation, from a unionist perspective, remains to be seen.

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Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Cambridge University and Jack Sheldon is completing a PhD there.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.