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Any residual argument for Scotland to stay within the United Kingdom meets its counter-argument in Boris Johnson. Westminster politics has always been the preserve of a remote enclave, on average massively richer and more privileged than those it claims to represent, especially in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But now that they’re dominated by a prehensile ogre grabbing all that his donors will give him while queues at the foodbanks lengthen, why should anyone north of the border consent to be ruled by his insouciant decree?
We have never been closer and never further away. Remote technologies open up our living rooms to each other, but what we see behind the doors are different worlds: flaking plaster in one, £800-a-roll wallpaper in another. In Westminster, a hereditary elite treated the pandemic less as a crisis than as an opportunity to enrich its friends. By granting unadvertised, untendered contracts to favoured companies for essential goods and services, many of which were either substandard or never arrived, it actively encouraged the sort of profiteering during a national emergency portrayed in The Third Man. A number of Harry Limes have become exceedingly rich as a result.
In Westminster, where the emblem of parliament is a portcullis surmounted by a crown and surrounded by chains (translation: keep out, plebs), the powers symbolically vested in the crown are routinely abused by prime ministers. But none, in the modern era, has exploited the absence of a codified constitution as effectively as Johnson. Now he can choose whether or not his own failures and excesses should be investigated. He has stuffed the House of Lords with a bizarre assortment of cronies and creeps who owe everything to his patronage and nothing to the electorate.
Though he anointed himself “minister for the union” and claimed that “wild horses” would not prevent him from visiting Scotland before tomorrow’s elections, last month he dropped his plans to do so. He has labelled devolution a “disaster” and “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”. His Internal Market Act wrenches back devolved powers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He has launched a challenge before the supreme court to two Holyrood bills (on children’s rights and local government) designed to enhance the welfare of the Scottish people. He intervenes only to suppress.
Keir Starmer seems scarcely interested in Scotland as anything other than an electoral calculation – and it’s not always clear which election he’s considering. Last month he made the weirdest campaign video I’ve ever seen in the UK. It began with a British Airways jet landing at Edinburgh airport. Starmer came down the steps like a visiting dignitary mumbling “Remind me which country this is again?”, strode around the empty airport with a phalanx of sinister-looking men, inveighed against the lack of flights and announced that he wanted to put economic recovery “above all else”, presumably including life on Earth. Then, it seems, having alienated his remaining Scottish voters and anyone under 40, he flew out again.
It was incomprehensible, until you remember that British Airways is a touchstone and crucial battleground for the Unite union, Labour’s biggest donor, and that future remissions depend on the outcome of its leadership elections, for which nominations begin tomorrow, just as Scottish voters go to the polls. In other words, he seems to have been using Scotland as a backdrop for an entirely different contest. That’s what Scotland is to Westminster: a backdrop.
I have long struggled to understand the liberal enthusiasm for the UK. To me, it looks like a mechanism for frustrating progressive change and crushing political aspiration. The number of people in the three devolved nations who are reaching the same conclusion is rising at astonishing speed.
In Scotland, the three parties that favour independence (the SNP, the Greens and Alba) are on course between them to win a clear majority this week. If Westminster permits a second referendum, and allows it to be conducted fairly, the likely result is the end of the union.
Until a few years ago, Welsh independence looked like an eccentric hobby; those in favour tended to peak at about 10%. But a poll in March showed that, of those who expressed an opinion, 39% of Welsh people said they would vote to leave the union. Plaid Cymru and perhaps the Greens, both of which favour independence, should make some gains tomorrow.
Northern Ireland’s centenary this week is almost certain to be its last. Reunification is likely to happen slowly: it could be disastrous if rushed. But, prompted by the chaos of Brexit and a customs border in the Irish Sea, it has begun to look inexorable. A poll last week showed that a small majority of those with an opinion in Northern Ireland believe reunification will happen in their lifetimes. That creaking sound? It’s the ship of state starting to break apart.
The slow collapse of the United Kingdom creates an opportunity in all three nations to do things differently. An independent Scotland and Wales could cast aside the culture of corruption enabled – perhaps necessitated – by the UK’s outrageous campaign finance rules. They could reclaim their politics from Westminster’s gross subversions of democracy, its royal powers and the pompous rituals designed both to glorify and to conceal them. They could – and there are plenty of people in both nations with this ambition – create 21st-century governments built on proportional general elections, participatory democracy and continuous policy adjustment, distributive economies and an ethos of public service.
The reunification of Ireland would necessitate the political renewal of both parts of the island. It would create a new nation, built on new constitutional principles. It would require a massive exercise in participation, recognition and reconciliation. We could all do with some of that.
So what about England? At first sight the collapse of the UK leaves progressives here with a problem: a giant Tory majority coupled with all the old dysfunctions, untempered by the demands of the other nations. But this is our problem, and we should face it without recourse to the princes over the border.
I don’t believe England will address its manifold corruptions while our leaders can carry on like colonial viceroys, governing the four nations with ever decreasing consent. As the former nations of the UK embrace meaningful democracy, our preposterous, antiquated system will become ever harder to justify. It seems to me that political regeneration is impossible without the breakup of the union. We will begin to be good only when we stop trying to be great.