BORIS Johnson’s visit to Scotland has come and gone. It was a tricky one.
A balancing act infused with unavoidable paradoxes. Johnson, the self-proclaimed “Minister for the Union”, the man who has tasked himself with saving the UK, is the very man who lies at the heart of all the policies most likely to destroy it.
The challenge facing his advisors was an unenviable (and arguably impossible) one. A successful trip to Scotland would require the Prime Minister to make his presence felt, but the more Scots felt his presence, the less successful his trip would be.
The Johnson paradox is one of many facing the UK state more broadly in its handling of Scotland. How do you talk up a country’s potential as part of the UK while rubbishing its potential as an independent state?
How do you convince a people that the EU doesn’t want them when you’re the one pulling them out? How do you make them feel valued while ignoring them at every opportunity? How do you tell them they live in a democracy while denying them a say on their future?
Do you just lie? Perhaps. But that comes with its own difficulties.
READ MORE: Even Tories don’t believe PM’s claim the Union is stronger than ever, poll finds
Much of the UK mass media seems broadly on side when it comes to being pro-Union. Whether that’s by accident or design may never be conclusively proven but there’s presumably a good reason why broadcasting remains a reserved matter. Is it to promote cohesion across the UK?
If cohesion means presenting the Scots with England-specific news every day as if it’s their own, then it’s hard to argue broadcasters aren’t at least making an effort. For years, “national” news about GCSEs and barristers and NHS trusts has instilled familiarity with our neighbour, while equivalent Scottish stories have been presented as “local”, giving them a parochial feel. News reporting, however, is increasingly becoming a double-edged sword for the British state.
The challenge facing the UK establishment these days in its approach towards Scotland in the media is (much like that of Johnson’s advisors) an unenviable one. How do you push a particular line in one country of the UK, without inadvertently creating difficulties for yourself in another?
More specifically, how do you tell the Scots they are too poor to be independent without making the English feel resentful about apparently paying for us? Especially when we’re so obviously not even grateful.
BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty raised the question on many minds, asking Ian Blackford in a discussion about government funding: “You wouldn’t get anything if you weren’t part of the Union though would you?”
The notion that Scotland is a financial burden that the UK Government helps out of the goodness of its heart is one that has been plugged for a long time — British money is English money and Scottish money is whatever London graciously agrees to send north.
In the context of such attitudes, it’s hardly surprising that a recent Panelbase poll for Business for Scotland found that 49% of English people believe England should be an independent country. The subsidy junkie narrative is a powerful one. The problem for the UK Government though, is that the wrong country believes it.
Things were not always thus. There was a time, not so long ago, when large numbers of Scots trembled at the thought of self-governance turning Scotland into Northwest Europe’s only third-world country.
READ MORE: Johnson is as disliked as Thatcher but not as well respected, historian argues
We were well convinced of our special inability to run our own affairs. Or at least enough of us were well enough convinced to vote away our opportunity to try. It was a deeply ingrained attitude; a blind faith in whatever Westminster and the “national” news was telling us that only a monumental betrayal of trust might shake.
Then came that monumental betrayal of trust. Then another. Then another. And we began to re-evaluate everything we’d been told about ourselves and our place in the Union.
FROM the abandonment of The Vow, to the pursuit of Brexit, to the power grab on Holyrood, the UK government has spent the last six years breaking the promises it made in its effort to save the Union in 2014.
Each abandoned pledge and debunked scare story ratchets up the distrust, compounding a growing Scottish scepticism about anything the UK Government says about anything. The presentation of Westminster’s bungled handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has hardly helped matters, with declarations of “success” clashing horrifically with death figures that place England among the worst affected countries in the world.
There is an assumption among an increasing number of Scots that when Westminster says something, it should be taken with a more than a pinch of salt; that when it promises Scotland something, it is not only unlikely to deliver, but will probably do the polar opposite of what it said.
Is it any wonder the UK Government is determined to oppose a second independence referendum? How will they fight it? If the Scots don’t want what they’re selling, honesty’s not going to win it for them, but they blew all their best tales last time. Even if they do think up a tempting new carrot to dangle before us, how’s that going to look to the increasingly independence-minded English taxpayer?
Those are some tough circles to square, if it’s even possible to square them at all. If the UK Government is to dupe the Scottish public again and win the next referendum, it will not only have to overcome its many paradoxical arguments but rebuild a trust that it has spent the last six years arrogantly destroying. It will require a strategy of absolute genius.
So, how did Boris Johnson fare in his venture north? He came to an underpopulated corner of Scotland, patriotically brandished a pair of Great British crabs and implored us to believe that “the Union has never been stronger”. Does he honestly believe that?
More importantly, do you?