Sometimes, all it takes is an unguarded remark to show the world who you really are.
In a recent edition of the excellent “The Big Light” podcast, co-presenter Eamonn O’ Neill related an anecdote of being in the hallway of number ten Downing Street with many other journalists. This was in the spring of 1998, and the occasion was a meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair and other prominent figures as they thrashed out the details of what would become the Belfast, or Good Friday, Agreement that would see an imperfect but, so far, lasting peace in an Ireland that had been devastated by three decades of sectarian violence.
Central to the success of the treaty was persuading those on all sides that a breakthrough required thinking what had been until quite recently unthinkable – holding negotiation talks with the IRA and getting them to agree to the principles of democratic process and the continuation of the ceasefire. Incredibly, that was now a central part of the process, hence the historic sight, witnessed by the assembled journalists, of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness walking into the highest office of British politicians. Blair was often mocked for his soundbite about “feeling the hand of history on my shoulders”, but actually, this time, he was bang on the money. The negotiators could see the finishing line and a stunning result was the prize. Peace had never felt closer. Whatever your opinion, you’d have to have had a heart of stone not to be moved by what you’d just seen.
And then it happened.
As Adams and McGuinness headed for the meeting room, there was a stage whisper from a journalist. A familiar, very posh drawl.
“What a ghastly business this is”, said a youngish, tousle-haired hack. And the name on the press accreditation card on his lapel?
That journalist is now, of course, Prime Minister and in this context his declaration on Monday night – that Scottish devolution has been a disaster and “the worst mistake Tony Blair ever made” (which must have come as news to the relatives of at least one hundred thousand dead Iraqi citizens) should come as no surprise. Johnson – from publishing anti-Scottish poetry in The Spectator to contending that the best way to benefit Scots is to spend their money in Croydon, to threatening to repatriate powers over health – has long had form for deeply reactionary beliefs over constitutional matters. Monday night didn’t come from no-where.
In truth, though, he is far from alone in holding these views, and it’s possible Tony Blair is actually on the same page. In fact, Johnson’s mistake was in breaking the omertà and articulating the long-held establishment consensus that power devolved is power retained. When we understand this, the power grab central to the highly contentious internal market Bill makes perfect sense. How can I be a thief when all those things you thought were yours were in fact mine all along?
I don’t quite commend Boris Johnson for his honesty – even a broken clock is right sometimes – but I’m delighted that what he – they – believe, is now a matter of public record, regardless of the desperate efforts of his apologists to kill the story.
First things first.
By any objective analysis, particularly compared to Cardiff or (particularly) Stormont, Scotland’s devolution has been a success. But for the Prime Minister, and those who preceded him, the only criteria for a successful devolved government is how compliant it is, and it says everything about how Westminster views us that it is happy to allow Scotland to have a government unless the people consistently elect a party that diverges from their unionist world view. So it’s not devolution that’s the problem: it’s the Scots, who insist on exercising their democratic rights by voting for the “wrong” parties, who are to blame. How dare we.
It’s instructive to look at devolution from the perspective of its creation rather than what it has become, which is a perfect mechanism to launch a revolt against a failed British state in the grip of plague that it has fatally mismanaged.
When you think about the recent history of devolution, it was a unionist project whose purpose was, as George Robertson said, to “kill independence stone dead”. Which the de Honte system would have done if it hadn’t been for a) Iraq b) the 2011 Holyrood election, which delivered exactly the result that devolution was supposed to prevent – a pro-independence majority in Scotland’s Parliament, and c) Labour’s support for the Tories during the 2014 independence referendum which won them a Pyrrhic victory whilst consigning them to seemingly permanent irrelevance.
And, ironically, the people who benefitted most from devolution were the ones who most vociferously opposed it – the Scotland based branch of the English Conservative party (again, there is no distinctive Scottish version. “Scottish Conservatism” is an oxymoron). Devolution gave a voice to a political culture that has been rejected here since 1955. Having voted against extra powers for Scotland, devolution gave the Tories a platform that they would otherwise not have had. Nobody said democracy was perfect.
A phrase we hear a lot is “settled will”. But some wills are more settled than others. In 2014, Scotland voted to remain in the UK. Settled will? Not so much – support for independence is somewhere between fifty three and fifty eight percent and Yes has now polled ahead fourteen times in a row. An online poll conducted during yesterday’s excellent Agriscot webinars put support for staying in the EU at seventy-five percent, and yet we are forty-five days from Stranraer becoming a lorry park.
Democracy is a process not an event. People have the right to change their mind as circumstances alter, and the people who should respect referendums are those who made the promises to get the victory, not those who wrongly believed them and want to right a wrong.
But where the phrase “settled will” is justified, I think, is in the context of support for the Scottish Parliament. Not for what its governments do or don’t do: but for the very truth of its existence. Scotland’s imperfect Parliament had a troubled rebirth, but is now a key part of the fabric of our democracy and our very lives. Support for it goes way beyond narrow political division or constitutional tribalism. Ninety percent of Scots want a Parliament. Which means Boris Johnson has just lost any sliver of relevance in Scotland, if indeed he had any in the first place.
The question is then why he chose to say what he said.
It may be as simple as this – a guy with a long track record of anti-Scottish sentiment and a deeply reactionary view on any kind of devolution was simply articulating what he’d always believed and wasn’t actually bothered about or smart enough to anticipate the carnage his remarks would wreak. And it’s interesting that his supporters weren’t so much upset because they disagreed, but mortified that their leader had simply broken the omertà and articulated a widely held view.
My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that Johnston et al would happily say cheerio to Scotland if it meant the hard Brexit that he and his backers have craved from the outset. I may be affording him a tactical brain that he doesn’t possess, but maybe he’s done the maths and decided that, on balance, Scotland isn’t worth the hassle. Suits me.
As for Scotland, we are where we are but I regret that we spent at least two years after 2016 trying to save England from itself. We should have said “ok, we’ll back your withdrawal Bill. In return, give us unconditional and non-negotiable powers over a second and subsequent plebiscite”. I honestly believe that Johnson’s remarks suggest they would have gone for that.
So how should we respond?
I’ve long argued that, with Brexit and a power grab imminent, May 2021 is too late for yet another mandate (how many is that now?) for a second vote. And, in truth, you have to question if the strategy of asking nicely to get to vote for the return of all available powers from people who think it was a mistake to grant us even the limited ones that we currently enjoy is a sustainable or even a remotely serious policy. Spoiler – it isn’t.
Simply saying “Scotland won’t put up with this” isn’t enough. Scotland puts up with – in terms of Brexit, power grabs, austerity – an awful lot. We boast then we cower. No wonder Johnston felt so emboldened.
So I’d make this plea to my government.
Please stop seeing all constitutional issues through the prism of Westminster.
Stop moaning about the “outrageous” attitude of the UK Government. It’s what they do. It’s what they are. They don’t just hate devolution. They hate the people of Scotland.
We know of what ilk the current Tory incumbents of that institution are.
We see and hear their sneering, jeering condescension towards Scotland’s elected representatives on a daily basis. It is ritual humiliation, and it only reinforces the mistaken impression that Johnson and Gove et al have the power to determine our future.
They do not. The people of Scotland hold the keys to how they are governed, and no-one else, and every single statement from our leaders must reflect this. The rhetoric should shift away from that of supplication to one of confidence and trust in the people who put them there.
Above all, they should remember one thing.
They are elected representatives of country which could be become a fully fledged self-governing nation within a year, and it’s time to deliver.
Boris Johnson was right, but not in the way he intended. Devolution has been a disaster – for Westminster. Because it has allowed us, through the judicious use of the limited powers grudgingly afforded us, to catch a glimpse of what we could achieve if only we were a normal, newly independent nation. And some things, when seen, can never be unseen.
Keep safe people. I’ll meet you further on up the road