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Boris Johnson’s Tories have given up on saving the UK union

Boris Johnson leads the Conservative and Unionist party, so named to mark its opposition to Irish Home Rule at the turn of the 20th century. If, as now looks quite possible, the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is set to fracture, it will be because the prime minister’s party has left behind its history. The Tories have grown indifferent to England’s bonds with its Celtic neighbours.

By temperament, Johnson has never been much interested in Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National party is pressing for a referendum on independence. His attachment to Northern Ireland is weaker still. After promising the Tories’ allies in the Democratic Unionist party that he would never allow an economic border in the Irish Sea, he signed up to a Brexit deal with Brussels that does precisely that.

The campaign to leave the EU led by Johnson in 2016 was in essence an expression of English nationalism. He opposes separation with Scotland only because it would deliver a grievous blow to England’s international stature. The break-up of a union spanning more than three centuries would be quite likely to destabilise the UK monarchy. More important for Johnson, it would probably see him turned out of office.

His party’s estrangement from unionism speaks to shifts in electoral demography and the distribution of power. Its grassroots membership has atrophied everywhere, but it has also become less “Scottish”. The Tories hold six of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. In 2017-2019, the tally was a heady 13. These are high watermarks. The party was wiped out in 1997, and from 2001 to 2017 could boast only one Scottish seat. 

The remorseless advance of the SNP has inflicted still greater defeats on Labour, long Scotland’s dominant party. But there is an important difference. Labour cannot afford to give up on Scotland; it needs Scottish seats to secure a majority at Westminster. The Tories can rule with English votes. 

Research in 2018 by Edinburgh university’s Centre on Constitutional Change indicated that nearly three-quarters of English Conservative voters would accept Scotland’s departure as a price worth paying for Brexit. A 2019 YouGov survey found 63 per cent of Tory party activists would sacrifice the union to leave the EU. There was similar indifference to Northern Ireland.

The party’s embrace of English nationalism is underscored by its advance into former Labour strongholds in northern England. Scotland voted by a large margin to remain in the EU. Johnson’s new “red wall” seats in England were solidly behind Brexit. The attention they receive from Downing Street does not pass unnoticed in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Johnson’s bombastic bluster in response to Covid-19 has showcased a collision of political cultures. The health outcomes in England and Scotland have been similar, but Surgeon’s standing has climbed in response to her careful, deliberative style. Johnson’s ratings in Scotland are so deep in negative territory that aides have counselled him against campaign appearances before next week’s Holyrood elections.

The SNP still has to confront the economic costs of separation. The price of membership of the EU would be a border with England. Unionists have other cards to play. A looser constitutional settlement might bring back on board Scots who would be satisfied with greater autonomy.

Johnson, however, has shown his contempt for devolution by striking out in the opposite direction. Brexit has been deployed to reassert the supremacy of Westminster. The prime minister says he will simply refuse Sturgeon’s referendum demand. Such a veto would see a partnership based on consent replaced by one ruled by English coercion. That would be a gift to the SNP. Scottish Tories know Johnson’s stance is unsustainable. They have been warning that, whatever his words, a victory for the SNP would indeed be the prelude to a plebiscite.

Sturgeon wants independence. Northern Ireland’s DUP fears that Downing Street indifference to the delicate balance struck with Irish nationalism in the Good Friday Agreement is pushing the province out of the Union. Rioting on the streets has reflected unionist fears of abandonment. By prioritising a hard Brexit for England over border arrangements for Northern Ireland, Johnson put economics on the side of Irish nationalism.

Nothing is preordained. The future of the UK union, however, rests above all on the full-hearted commitment to the enterprise of its most powerful nation. It will not long survive the turn to English nationalism.

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