Magazine article The Spectator

Here’s Nicola

Magazine article The Spectator

Here’s Nicola

Article excerpt

Boris Johnson is far from being the first prime minister to holiday in Scotland. David Cameron used to slip off the radar at his father-in-law’s estate on the Isle of Jura, and plenty of other Conservative premiers have enjoyed a Scottish August on the grouse moor. But Johnson may be the first to holiday north of the Tweed as a matter of political calculation and convenience. He comes to Scotland to show his commitment to what he calls the ‘magic’ of the Union.

About time too. At last — at long last, Scottish Unionists might say — the cabinet has recognised it has a problem in North Britain. Indeed, the problem is that fewer and fewer Scots believe they should be inhabitants of Britain at all; opinion polls suggest that if an independence referendum were held next month, Scotland would vote ‘yes’. The saving grace for Johnson is that there will be no such referendum this year or next.

In normal circumstances, next year’s Scottish parliament elections would be very challenging for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. The party has been in power for 13 years; long enough to exhaust voters’ patience. This week, Sturgeon’s government performed perhaps the greatest U-turn in the history of the Holyrood parliament, reversing course on the allocation of exam-substitute grades that saw thousands of pupils receive poorer results than predicted. Results that were last week deemed ‘credible’ if unfair are now, by Sturgeon’s own logic, fair but incredible.

Education, not independence, is notionally Sturgeon’s no. 1 priority. She has asked to be judged on her record, knowing full well that she will not be. Scotland has a five-party political system but one of these parties, the SNP, commands the loyalty of nearly 50 per cent of voters. Sturgeon could shed a fifth of her support and still dominate the political landscape.

Ostensibly, the practical arguments in favour of independence are weaker now than when the question was put to the Scottish people in 2014. Some oh-so-clever Tories suggested Brexit might put Scotland in a box from which there was no palatable escape, that the prospect of significant trade barriers between Scotland and England — to which more than half of all Scottish exports are sent — would make independence more daunting. But if Brexit can represent the triumph of sovereignty over economics — a respectable position — then so can Scottish independence. Separatism is a sensibility, rather than a fully costed set of detailed policies. It’s not the economy, stupid. Not any more.

Viewed from the pro-independence perspective, that is just as well — since the early years of the new Scottish nation would be much like the final years of the old, pre-1707, Scottish nation: damnably difficult. The SNP have not, as yet, formulated convincing answers on matters of finance, currency, and much else besides. In 2014, the nationalists claimed Scotland could have it all: more spending without the inconvenience of increased taxation. That was an illusion then and it is now an impossibility. Oil prices have more than halved.

The future will not be oil-powered, but it will be expensive. Scotland’s deficit, always far higher than the EU demands for new member states, will be even higher now.

But in the Union, there is no such thing as a Scottish deficit: if there is a gap between what Scotland spends and what it raises in tax, that is filled by HM Treasury. The argument that Covid-19 has underlined the extent to which Scotland benefits from the broad financial shoulders of the United Kingdom has not yet proved persuasive. It might be true, but it is simply not believed. It is also true that the SNP’s 2014 independence plans would have led to ruin — a central bank, as it turns out, is an important institution. But, as with Brexit, most independence supporters trust that in the end everything will turn out for the best. Unionists are slowly realising, to their horror, that it doesn’t matter how strong the maths is. …

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