Border troubles point to the long-term crisis of unionism in Scotland and the UK
Sunday National, July 5th 2020
Reaching 100 days since the start of the UK lockdown was always going to be a milestone, but in many places it has been marked by a kind of cabin fever irritability and over the top remarks.
Boris Johnson attempted to convince voters that he was the inheritor of Roosevelt’s political ambition and wanted a ‘New Deal’ in a speech he made in Dudley – whilst 56 miles away, the residents of Leicester were having to deal with a new localised lockdown.
Just in case anyone thought the lowest point of public debate had been reached historian David Starkey then jumped into the gutter of prejudice with the remarks that: ‘Slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain would there? An awful lot of them survived.’
Starkey also said that the British Empire was ‘still with us’ and that it is ‘probably the most important moment in human history.’ It was nice of him to add that conditional ‘probably’ in such a eulogy to the triumphs of British imperialism, because he isn’t usually known for such sensitivities.
Boris Johnson on Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions claimed that: ‘There is no such thing as a border between England and Scotland’. This was in response to mild-mannered and conditional remarks from Nicola Sturgeon about the possibilities of screening, isolating and quarantining people travelling to Scotland from England where she said she did not rule out such measures.
The story did not end with Johnson’s initial remarks. Downing Street, as is often the case, offered a clarification of his remarks. Johnson had meant that there was no ‘border infrastructure’ between Scotland and England which is an entirely different statement to what he actually said.
Jacob Rees-Mogg in the Commons followed up by rapping lyrically about his boss’s ‘no border’ statement and went into hyperbole invoking Sturgeon and Trump in the same sentence saying: ‘One never thought Nicola Sturgeon would model herself on American political figures and want to build a wall – at least a metaphorical wall if not actually getting like Hadrian with the bricks and mortar.’
There followed an editorial in The Times which seemed to think all this fuss about borders was not just about Scots getting upset, but even more narrowly, actually only about Scotland. It forgot that it takes at least two sides to have a border – and that this was as much about England as Scotland.
Was all of this evidence of the silly summer season, and a product of coming out of lockdown with people saying the sort of thing they would not normally do? Or was it about something more?
First, the comments from Johnson and Rees-Mogg are not off-the-cuff remarks, but part of a deliberate Tory strategy. For example Jackson Carlaw, Scottish Tory leader, said on April 27th that: ‘There is no border … We are one United Kingdom.’
Second, this is not – whatever The Times might think – just about Scotland. Rather it is also about England and the entire United Kingdom. And it is a lot about a certain version of England. Andrew Bowie, Tory MP said this week: ‘We are one nation. Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish.’
Third, it is not as if borders have not been in public debate of late. The Welsh border even made an appearance in UK news thanks to different lockdown rules. More sensitively, the Northern Irish border – both between the UK and Republic and between the province and Great Britain – became a political hot potato in the Brexit negotiations. Boris Johnson even used the same sort of language of no ‘border infrastructure’ to describe his commitment to no border running down the Irish Sea while signing a Brexit agreement which did exactly that.
And to add to the sudden resurgence in talking about borders, this week the boundaries and borders of Leicester were discussed at senior levels of UK Government. Options to even close these boundaries have been on the table, with the BBC current affairs programmes Politics Live asking Tory politicians if they will consider roadblocks around the city.
Scotland’s borders have legal status. They are mentioned in the Scotland Act 1998 – the legislation which set up the Scottish Parliament. And Scotland has a land border running 96 miles with England, while also constituting 32% of the land mass of the UK. It has maritime boundaries as well – ones which were adjusted by Westminster in the statutory instrument the Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundaries Order 1999 – that cover most of the UK’s North Sea oilfields to the East and stretch way out into the midst of the Atlantic to the West.
Fourth, borders have always mattered and always will, and in a significant part of the English imagination the primary border is that of the English Channel. This is based on the geographic reality that this is the nearest point of England to continental Europe, and has been critical at several historical points in stopping the intentions of potential invaders such as Napoleon and Hitler. The Channel matters in terms of trade and commerce, but on another level carries a kind of metaphorical importance – seen in the continual invoking of the White Cliffs of Dover by English writers.
In this English mindset – one which clearly carried some weight in the Brexit debate – all of the borders in the UK and even with the Republic become of secondary importance compared to the clear blue water between dear old Blighty and ‘Johnny Foreigner’ massed the other side of the Channel.
This is not just about the past, but the present, and how debate on the constitution and future of the UK may evolve in the future. Once upon a time Scottish Toryism celebrated Scottishness, our distinctiveness and our nationhood. This is true of a host of Tory politicians such as Walter Elliot and John Buchan (author of ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’) in the 1930s; Alec Douglas-Home in the 1950s and 1960s; Alick Buchanan-Smith in the 1970s, and Ian Lang and Malcolm Rifkind in the 1980s.
When Winston Churchill, as leader of the Tory opposition to Attlee’s Labour Government, visited Edinburgh in 1950 a week before the general election he famously railed against against Labour centralisation in a speech at the Usher Hall declaring that he ‘should never adopt the view that Scotland should be forced into the serfdom of socialism as the result of a vote in the House of Commons.’
The Tory descent from this point – which saw them winning 50.1% of the Scottish vote and half the parliamentary seats in 1955 – is a long and well-known one. A critical part in all this was the growing perception in the Thatcher-Major years that the Scottish Tories were an ‘English party’. When the Tories finally lost power in 1997 a subsequent opinion poll in Scotland in 1998 found that 73% of respondents regarded the Tories here as an ‘English party’.
In the past twenty years the party has had several leaders, numerous attempts at rebranding and repositioning, and several false starts. But on first appearances their current approach appears to offer little prospect for them other than playing to a British assimilationist project. This is not a good approach for not only can it not really deliver, it is beyond the politics of the Thatcherite 1980s a negation of what Toryism and unionism is meant to stand for.
Yet underneath what looks like idiocy there is actually a grim logic behind this bunker nationalism of the right. In the 2014 indyref campaign the spectre of the border was articulated by No with the threat of customs checks at Gretna – which was widely regarded as risible pre-2016 Brexit when the entire UK was in the EU.
But now post-Brexit, and in anticipation of a future indyref, the border is being invoked by the very denial of its existence. The argument goes: this at the moment is not a real border, but a porous, open and free one with freedom of travel and part of an economic and social union which has guaranteed prosperity to these islands. It is really only as some have claimed in the past few days an administrative divide.
What it is implying is that this ‘no border’ is under threat from future independence which would create a real, not so porous, hard border between equal, sovereign states. This is the world of Scotland inside the EU and England and the rest of the UK outside the EU; Schengen on one side; non-Schengen on the other, different currencies, passport controls, queues at the border, and a disruption of the frictionless trade and flow of the present. A sort of hyped up version of the ‘No Deal Brexit’ for the UK – which Boris Johnson said on Friday was a ‘very good thing’.
It does not matter that this is nearly 100% hogwash. Rather it is putting in place uncertainty, disruption and critically, barriers and obstacles. Not of the physical and legal border kind, but of the mind. For this is about the hearts, minds and importantly, the fears of voters about how they will think about the future of Scotland.
The long story matters here. Scottish unionism was once proud of its Scottish credentials. It was, even some Tory politicians claimed, itself nationalist and standing up for our proud history as a nation and its traditions. This is demonstrated for example in ‘The Campaign Guide’ of the Tories for 1955 – the year they won over half the vote in Scotland – which states: ‘A Scot’s pride in Scotland as a nation is no mere creation of the last few decades. It is this heritage from centuries of history and tradition.’
Harold Macmillan struck a very different tone from today in a speech in Edinburgh in 1954 when he said of the union and the principles which underpinned it: ‘For generation after generation, unity of purpose has been achieved by the Union of our two great Kingdoms & of the Principality of Wales. But it must be the union of the wedding ring not the handcuff.’
All this is being abandoned now for what can only be seen as a disaster nationalism of Britain – being advanced by Downing Street, senior Westminster Tories and by the Scottish Tory leadership in a deliberate, conscious and desperate strategy.
This will be calamitous for unionism for it abandons the terrain of Scottish distinctiveness, autonomy and lineage to the independence side. Plus if that were not enough, independence is being gifted one of the most potent political principles and weapons: namely, democracy, as Westminster for now says no to another independence referendum.
It is a mistake of gargantuan proportions and will cost the forces and appeal of unionism dear. All they will have left is fire, brimstone and invoking fear with the threat of a self-governing Scotland making its own decisions and being left to its own devices as some kind of supposed nightmare.
It follows on in the wake of the generational disaster of Thatcher in the 1980s when the Tory Party in Scotland became seen by the vast majority of voters as ‘English’, ‘alien’ and imposing on us policies such as the poll tax. That legacy still informs and defines the Tories to this day.
It is one of the main reasons why many voters view them as nothing short of a pariah party, and why all other parties, including those that worked with them in Better Together, are wary to this day of co-operating with them. The Tories are making a similar mistake of massive consequences now in how they frame the union which if they continue with it will define them for years.
What all of this illustrates is the brutal nature of what any future indyref is going to be like. That was always going to be the case when the forces of independence – as it currently stands and looks likely into the near-future – are in a real position to win. The stakes are that high and rising by the day.