YYou have to feel some sympathy for Boris Johnson in hiding due to Covid-19, which he is now broadcasting to the country from an upper room in Downing Street. But with this week’s outburst stating that “the return has been a disaster,” he became, once again, the megaphone of the views of Dominic Cummings, who has been opposing the return in all its forms for 20 years. Wherever Cummings is now, Islington or Barnard Castle, his influence lives on.
In the week that the entire structure of the prime minister was exposed as dysfunctional and fractious, and the center of government was seen to be crumbling, it is ridiculous to attribute Britain’s ills to devolution.
Downing Street has come under fire for months for confusing briefings, conflicting advice, U-turns, fake sunrises, and now seemingly dubious contracts, but the prime minister still doesn’t get it. The pressure for refoulement is mounting because, whether from the chaos over closures, permits or testing and tracking, nations and regions feel they are not being consulted and Westminster is not listening.
Some days ago, 70% of Greater Manchester residents he complained that the north was being treated less favorably than the south, echoing metropolitan mayors who report that the number 10 does not give them the time of day. Ironically, the only government representative Northerners remember spending any time traveling among them is Cummings, if only to check his eyesight.
We have to worry about the unity of the country when the Prime Minister, who, as Mayor of London, continually advocated for greater devolution of the capital, is now downplaying the devolution of everyone else. And not only that, he is officially calling for the abolition of spending arrangements that allocate resources to peripheral communities in need.
Within minutes of their comments being made public, No 10’s new spin doctors began a damage limitation exercise. The prime minister, they said, was speaking only of Scotland under the Scottish National Party. And in the prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Johnson said the problem was the way the SNP had used the refund to “constantly campaign for the disintegration of our country”. However, their hostility towards Scotland is long-standing. Around the time I started at number 10, he wrote that no Scotsman should be allowed to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
So, and ever since, I have laughed at this, saying that I was really commenting on the suitability of Michael Gove. But fighting in a Scottish election or in a referendum on the evils of devolution, or even in his party’s current mantra – “No to independence, no to referendum, no to change” – simply suits the SNP. It leaves conservatives defending an increasingly discredited status quo against a SNP that says only one kind of exchange is now offered: independence. And it takes the ground under the feet of those who advocate more empowerment within the UK as the sensible way forward.
The ‘unchanged’ camp has a dwindling band of Scottish supporters, not because Scots feel much different from their southern neighbors, but because they share the same concerns. Like Wales and many English regions, they too feel neglected within Whitehall’s corridors of power, ignored by policy makers at number 10 and treated as second-class citizens in their own country.
Most Scots, and I am one of them, are proud and patriotic, and also progressive. What moves the nation, the beating heart of Scotland, is not so much the demand for separation as the desire for social justice. And in this, the Scots find common cause with friends in the North, Midlands and Wales – indeed, in all regions and nations, including millions of Londoners – who also feel left out and abandoned and have seen no evidence of the “leveling up” they were promised.
Despite Johnson’s provocations, 60% of Scots say that the different nations of the United Kingdom “still have more in common than what divides us”, a majority opinion not only of those close to the border, but from the Highlands and the Central Industrial Belt. Still more say they have a strong affinity with the North of England and the Midlands, and with Wales. And a higher proportion, 76%, say that “the UK and Scottish governments should be better at cooperating on the issues that affect my life.” It is not a call for separation, but for the kind of exchange within the UK that balances the local powers that we want with the cross-border cooperation that we know we need.
So what Johnson would call “the Scottish problem” is, in fact, “the British problem”: that to accommodate the needs of all nations and regions, we have to revise the terms in which we all work together. Such a radical rewrite of the UK constitution should start with citizens’ assemblies across the country and lead to a unique event that has only happened before when countries decide on a new beginning: a constitutional convention.
Because if we don’t appreciate the scale of the challenge ahead, after Johnson’s intervention we know it now. The battle to come is not between change and the status quo, but between two forms of change: one that makes change work within the UK; and one that, sadly, would lead to five million people leaving it.
• Gordon Brown was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010
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