DAN HODGES: By refusing to give the Scots a vote, Boris is repeating the fatal error the Remainers made
The people of Scotland have no interest in a referendum. We know this because their Prime Minister has told them so. ‘I think endless talk about a referendum without any clear description of what the constitutional situation would be after that referendum is completely irrelevant now to the concerns of most people,’ Boris explained as he toured the Lighthouse Laboratory in Glasgow on Thursday.
‘We don’t know what the point of it would be – what happens to the Army, what happens to the Crown, what happens to the pound, what happens to the Foreign Office. Nobody will tell us what it’s all meant to be about.’
We’ve been here before. A British Prime Minister confidently dismissing a desire for independence as the preserve of a few out-of-touch obsessives. The argument that the whole issue is much too complicated, and that those backing it don’t really understand what it is they’re supporting. Then the pat on the head, and the entreaty to let the Big Boy politicians get on with the serious issues of the day.
In my view the Union is worth preserving. The economic, diplomatic, cultural and historical case for a continuing – if imperfect – constitutional settlement based on unity over separatism is sound.
The people of Scotland have no interest in a referendum. We know this because their Prime Minister has told them so. Pictured: Boris Johnson last week
But this morning one thing’s clear. If they carry on as they are, those who have cast themselves as the defenders of the United Kingdom may as well tear the blue from the Union Flag now, and send it to Nicola Sturgeon to wear as a scarf during her triumphal independence parade.
How is it that Boris, Michael Gove and their lieutenants – still proudly sporting the battle-scars of Brexit – have not learned the lessons of their own successful campaign?
Why can’t they see they are replicating, with almost perfect symmetry, all the mistakes made by the Remainers? The first of these is the most basic. Like it or not, the referendum is going to happen. And the longer it’s delayed, and the longer politicians in Westminster are seen to be trying to delay it, the more certain it is it will be lost. You can’t spend years – as Britain’s EU champions did – shoving a gag into people’s mouths, then expect their first words when you finally take it out to be ‘thank you’.
Another glaring failure is the inability to recognise the debate surrounding Scottish independence – just like the Brexit debate – is not actually the preserve of an entitled political elite. Those who oppose a referendum are currently acting as if they are discussing Scotland’s future within the rarefied confines of the Carlton Club.
If they carry on as they are, those who have cast themselves as the defenders of the United Kingdom may as well tear the blue from the Union Flag now, and send it to Nicola Sturgeon (pictured) to wear as a scarf during her triumphal independence parade
Every article, every speech, every statement is predicated in the same way – what clever constitutional trick can we, the opponents of independence, come up with to spike the SNP’s guns. And they seem oblivious to the fact everyone in Scotland is witness to these machinations. More powers for Holyrood. A Constitutional Convention. Pre-negotiation of the terms of withdrawal. Each one is a fiendishly clever ruse. And each one contains the same fatal flaw. The people of Scotland know perfectly well it’s a ruse. They can see it represents an attempt to guide Scottish voters by the nose to an outcome pre-determined by the panjandrums of Whitehall.
We don’t need to look into the crystal ball. All we need to do is read the book. Or, in the age of populism, the Twitter feed. Once you are caught trying to stack the deck against the people, you are finished. It doesn’t matter how worthy your cause. But again, the Union’s protectors are unwilling, or unable, to learn that lesson.
Last week one of them was quoted in The Times describing what Boris’s response should be to Nicola Sturgeon’s expected victory in the upcoming Holyrood elections. ‘If Nicola gets a majority Boris can’t just say no. He has to say ‘no, because’ and that reason has to be deep,’ they observed sagely.
‘No, because.’ That’s the strategy. Boris turns his back on the Scottish people, and ignores Sturgeon’s triumph at the ballot box. He then spins and turns his back on them a second time by refusing a second referendum. But he comes up with a reason for doing so which is ‘deep’, at which point they shrug, tug their forelocks and go happily about their business.
It’s fantasy politics. Or rather, it’s the politics of surrender. If the defenders of the Union believe in their case, they have to go out and make it. They have to take their arguments to the people, not keep coming up with ever more convoluted reasons for cowering from them. In the Brexit referendum, the Leavers campaigned with passion and belief. The Remainers did so half-apologetically and crippled by fear. We all know the result.
But this isn’t just a matter of accepting political reality. It’s also a matter of principle. Boris, Michael Gove and the supporters of Brexit were crystal clear: Brexit was to be the UK’s ‘Independence Day’.
As we watch the European Union attempting to establish its Covid vaccine protection racket, thank God it was. But the fact is the constitutional settlement the people of Scotland voted for in 2014 no longer exists. And they too have the right to decide if they want to take back control of their borders and their laws. Because if we deny them that right, then what precisely is it the defenders of the Union are actually defending? The act of Union is voluntary. That’s what makes it work. It isn’t enforced with guns, or even laws. It’s maintained by the people’s will.
BUT at the moment the Prime Minister seems intent on fulfilling every caricature Nicola Sturgeon seeks to paint of him. He is indeed acting like colonial potentate. ‘I genuinely don’t think the people of this country want to spend more time on constitutional wrangling – they had a referendum only six years ago which is not by my understanding, a generation,’ he decreed last week.
Sorry Boris. But you should know better than anyone that what people don’t want is lectures from politicians about what it is they want.
And that doesn’t just go for the people of Scotland, it goes for the people of England as well. Portentous discussions about the need to preserve our sacred 300-year-old fraternal bonds play well within the confines of Westminster. But most people I know on the outside hardly give the issue any thought. And to the extent they do, it’s expressed via a vague desire that Scotland stays, coupled with best wishes if she decides to go her separate way.
This is how the Union needs to be defended. With humility and good grace. There should be no attempt to bind Scottish hands. If the people of Scotland wish to remain in the Union we will all be the stronger for it. But if they don’t, then good luck to them. Both nations will find a way to co-exist and prosper. The time has come for Boris to again follow his Brexit instincts. Trust the people. Let them have their say. Give Scotland her referendum.
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