Why Boris Johnson cannot say no forever

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, January 19th 2020

Thirty years ago the Proclaimers sang ‘What do you do when Democracy’s all through? What do you do when minority means you?’

This was the environment in Scotland after Thatcher’s third term victory of 1987. The Proclaimers caught the denial of democracy and sense of powerlessness many felt in the face of that political juggernaut. They also gave voice to the need to name the democratic crisis of the UK as such and its impact on Scotland, while emphasising our collective refusal to acquiesce to it.

Many feel that these sentiments resonate down through the years to the present. They feel that Scotland is trapped and that democracy is being denigrated. All of this raises the questions: what do we do after Boris Johnson has said no? Can he really go on indefinitely saying no? And how should the Scottish Government and wider independence movement respond?

Johnson’s defiant stand follows on from two years of Theresa May saying ‘now is not the time’. The latter was obviously playing for time: a hope that something would somehow turn up which would change events north of the border.

Emboldened by the recent Tory election victory – based on English votes – Johnson and his government feel that they can take an uncompromising view on Scotland. The logic is that they have nothing to lose from this and everything to gain, which is a little shortsighted.

One judgement within the Tory stance is that there is nothing to be achieved by what is seen as appeasing the Nationalists or the devolution project. Tories see this as the quicksand of the past twenty years which has just fed the demand for more powers for greater self-government.

Hence, they are for now going to play hardball on independence. The logic is to put pressure on the SNP and the different expectations in the party and movement – and between the leadership and activists. The Tories plan to open up another Scottish front with the aim of ‘lovebombing’ the Scots in areas as yet unspecified. The idea is to give tangible shape to benefits of the union – badging new union spending and identifying it with membership of the UK, in the way that the EU used to.

Tories are making defiant sounds. Johnson dismissed SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, calling him ‘a democracy denier’ at Prime Minister’s Questions. Michael Gove lectured Nicola Sturgeon declaring that ‘we’re saying no, Nicola, concentrate on the day job’; Scottish Secretary Alister Jack reversed his previous position and said that a 2021 SNP victory would not be a mandate for another referendum; while Tory MP Douglas Ross pronounced that an indyref ‘once in a generation’ meant not for ’30, 40 or 50 years’.

Johnson doesn’t have a strategy for Scotland. They are making it up as they go along. Saying No to the Nats. Planning to charm the Jocks. There is an absence of senior advisers on Scotland in the Johnson team and the party here is currently leaderless, and with well-documented differences between former Scots leader Ruth Davidson and Johnson. Eventually they will have to answer what the ‘Guardian’s’ Martin Kettle has called ‘Scotland’s Life of Brian question – what has the UK ever done for us?’

Some independence supporters think Scotland and the union does not matter to English Tories. But it does. Scotland is seen as integral to the union. It isn’t just about the nukes, landed estates and grouse moors. Instead it is about an idea of Britain, its status, place in the world and sense of history and tradition. Some think the Tories can write off Scotland because it doesn’t matter to them electorally. But this has been true for years.

The Tory version of Britain has been on the wane for decades – even predating Thatcher. It has been affected by the decline in British politics and rise in Westminster circles of English concerns as a substitute for the UK, as if de facto separation has already occurred. Added to this has been the emergence of a belligerent English nationalism, and the union being reduced to a transactional relationship. This last point explicitly states that Scotland should not embrace independence because it could not afford it due to a deficit created by successive UK governments.

The longer the Tories continue with their approach the more it carries risks and could become counter-productive. In 1987 the Tories, in the aftermath of winning an election based upon a large majority on English votes while experiencing a significant Scottish defeat, decided to double down and say no to home rule. Their argument then was similar to now: Scotland could not have self-government and the form of government that the vast majority of its people wanted. UK elections they argued were decided on a UK basis, an argument that has echoes with today’s Tories on Brexit.

There are differences. Then there was widespread support for a Parliament whereas now Scotland is evenly divided on independence. But Tory intransigence then transformed the breadth and depth of home rule support and forced the other parties to get serious. They produced a detailed plan for a Scottish Parliament, one different from Westminster and elected on PR. And this led to the 1997 referendum when 74% of people voted for the creation of a Parliament.

A Scotland where the Tories say no will have repercussions. It will lead to democracy becoming increasingly synonymous with the independence question – and the union with anti-democracy – a disastrous position for the latter. They are willingly making the Tories the defenders of Westminster minority rule and drawing attention to its limitations and shortcomings. And they are pushing others – particularly Labour, STUC and trade union movement – away from defending the constitutional status quo, supporting the principle of an indyref, and some towards independence itself.

Ultimately the union, and Scotland’s place in it, is based on consent and legitimacy. That consent withers if Scotland continually votes one way – for pro-independence parties – and is denied an indyref by Westminster. It brings into question the legitimacy of Westminster rule in Scotland that has never been fundamentally questioned over the Thatcher or devolution era.

If that penetrating question comes to the fore in politics then the nature of power and accountability moves centrestage. Writing in ‘The Times’ Iain Martin noted the limits of Johnson’s ‘just say no’ stance, saying that: ‘This is not a credible line … If Nicola Sturgeon gets a majority next year, there is going to be a referendum at some point.’

The role of Labour could be important but in the past week the party has shown an abject failure to understand Scotland. It was not just leadership contender Lisa Nandy’s ill-thought comments on what had happened in Catalonia, which interviewer Andrew Neil said was ‘not a wise thing to say’, it was the litany of Labour voices who tried to defend them, including former First Minister Jack McConnell. Meanwhile a host of senior voices including Scottish leader Richard Leonard remained silent, hoping the whole thing would go away.

Labour has for the past decade needed to engage with the economic and social realities of the UK: one of the most unequal, unbalanced developed countries in the world. Even the Corbyn project shied away from such radicalism – linking the economic and social with the constitutional – so what chance now?

There are pressures on the Scottish Government and SNP. Many independence supporters worry where is the strategy. What has been the thinking to anticipate Boris Johnson’s refusal of a Section 30 order? Where is Plan B? If there is one wouldn’t it be better for it not to remain under wraps? Wouldn’t it be better if the options facing independence had been more openly discussed, shared and owned over the past couple of years? And if there are any alternative strategies wouldn’t it be better if the rest of us had at least a knowledge of their outline as it would mean the UK Government would take more seriously the notion that there is a Plan B?

To some observers it looks as if the Scottish Government does not have a strategy beyond waiting for the UK Government to over-reach itself and hope that events play into their hands. This is a mirror image of the UK Government.

At this critical point we have to understand that process is not enough. Section 30, and the timing and holding of an indyref, are all about process. The calling of a future indyref is not the goal of the independence movement. This is a means to the end, with the end being an independent, self-governing Scotland.

Any strategy has to be focused on the ends, not exclusively the means. This requires getting serious in the way home rulers did in that post-1987 environment, draw up detailed plans for change, and have a sense of timescales over 2020-21 and beyond.

Fundamentally there has been a tension running through independence in the run-up to 2014 and since according to Oxford University academic Ben Jackson in his forthcoming study, ‘The Case for Scottish Independence: National Political Thought in Scotland, c. 1960-2014’ published later this year.

Jackson argues that prior to the 2014 indyref the SNP presented independence as a politics whereby ‘the policy stakes were gently lowered so that independence became a gradual process’ which was ‘averse to a once and for all transformational moment in which Scotland would suddenly return as a sovereign state.’

Yet the 2014 campaign gave birth to a movement which challenged the above and instead ‘saw the transition to Scottish statehood as a decisive rupture from the British model of politics and economics.’

These two approaches coexisted uneasily in 2014 but the differences were obvious then and have become increasingly apparent since – despite all the efforts of the SNP leadership to avoid substantive public debates about the meaning of independence or strategy. Jackson points out that an open debate on this ‘is an important task if the case for a Scottish state is to be refreshed to face the new political landscape.’

Jackson concludes his analysis with the observation about these two different perspectives: one leadership based, the other more activist focused, commenting: ‘Movements that cannot articulate the goals of their leaders with those of their activists and supporters usually end in disillusionment rather than gratitude.’

Assessing the situation in 2020 Jackson thinks it imperative that this debate is brought into the open: ‘In the wake of the financial crisis and Brexit there are many important questions about how an independent Scotland can chart a more social democratic course and how it might combine participation in European integration with a close relationship with the rest of the UK.’ These are questions ‘glossed over in 2014, but which now need better answers’ for the sake of democracy, self-government and social democracy, if there is to be any prospect of challenging the existing economic, social and political order which dominates these isles – including in the SNP leadership.

Just as in 1987 – the last time the Tories hoist their flag defending a rotten, unjust and anti-democratic political settlement – we need to come together, get serious and challenge the conservatives and radicals in our midst. The status quo and safety-first politics, of independence and any other persuasion, are no longer adequate.