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21 June 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 5:25am

Why the SNP believe Boris Johnson is a gift to the cause of Scottish independence

By Chris Deerin

Nicola Sturgeon is an avid reader and so, this week, I gave her a couple of books. The first was a new novel called Barnhill by Norman Bissell, which is about the dying George Orwell’s struggle to complete Nineteen Eighty-Four on a remote farmhouse on the island of Jura. The cover quote particularly grabbed me, on the 70th anniversary of the book’s publication, referencing “visions of a nightmare future”.

This brought to mind Boris Johnson, and so I popped downstairs to Waterstones’ non-fiction section and picked up a copy of Andrew Gimson’s biography of our soon-to-be prime minister. Consider it, I suggested to its grimacing recipient a few hours later, “homework”.

The occasion was an event in Edinburgh held by the think-tank Reform Scotland, of which I am director, to mark another anniversary: 20 years of devolution. The First Minister made a thoughtful and politically generous speech looking backwards, praising her predecessors and the work of parliaments past, and forwards, as we consider Scotland’s direction and challenges over the next 20 years.

How quickly those two decades have gone. As a young political journalist I covered devolution’s first, stumbling days, and well remember the heady mix of optimism, anticipation, nervousness and even scepticism that surrounded them. It’s been a bumpy ride at times, and the parliament has on occasion acted as its own worst enemy, but few today would deny its centrality and importance to our national debate. It has given Scotland a democratic focus and urgency that were previously lacking. It has its failings and its numpties, but they’re our failings and our numpties.

The birth of devolution doesn’t just belong to a different decade but a different century — it was 1999 when MSPs first gathered and the “auld sang” of Scottish self-government was heard once again. We could do with a pause for reflection, and the anniversary offers an obvious opportunity to do just that — to stop and take stock, preferably in a non-partisan way. What have we got right, and what could we have done better? What’s working and what isn’t? What should stay the same and what should change?

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To this end, Reform Scotland recently commissioned a series of essays by prominent Scottish politicians, which has produced a useful set of proposals to improve Holyrood’s workings — for example, by giving committee chairs the same independence as they have at Westminster, allowing more time for speeches, aspiring to greater cross-party co-operation and, from former first minister Jack McConnell, the suggestion of a second chamber, a part-time “citizens chamber” made up of councillors and other local people active in their organisations and communities.

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The First Minister in her speech described these ideas as “genuinely interesting and thought-provoking”. She went on to single out certain past Holyrood achievements and policy choices for praise: land reform; the ban on smoking in public places; PR in council elections; climate change legislation; equal marriage; minimum unit pricing for alcohol; the creation of universal services such as free tuition fees and personal care for the elderly; the baby box; and the expansion of childcare that is currently underway.

Sturgeon also pointed out that Holyrood has accreted significant extra powers as the years have passed, most recently taking control of income tax and some areas of welfare. New devolved institutions, including a tax agency, a social security agency, and an enterprise agency for the south of Scotland, have been established. Most intriguing of all, the new Scottish National Investment Bank is close to fruition. As the inaugural first minister Donald Dewar observed, devolution is a process, not an event

The obvious question is: what next? Scotland and England are diverging in terms of policy, values and culture. Westminster and the two main UK parties are increasingly anglicised institutions. A Boris Johnson premiership, in view of his past utterances and inclinations, does not bode well for Scotland or the Union as it currently stands. So, I asked Sturgeon, short of full independence, where does devolution go from here?

First, she said, she wants greater control over immigration. The Scottish government, which currently has little input into UK policy in this area, wants a separate Scottish visa so that it can shape immigration according to Scotland’s specific population needs.

She then revealed that in her one conversation with Johnson to date — at a Second World War memorial event — he asked her: “So Nicola, does full fiscal autonomy buy you guys off?”

“So that’s something to raise with him when he becomes Prime Minister,” she said, suggesting a forthcoming push for Holyrood to take control over what she called a “basket of taxes”, including VAT and National Insurance.

The view within the Scottish government is that Johnson couldn’t care less about Scotland, that he will be focused on bringing back into the fold those English voters who have recently deserted the Tories for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and that he exemplifies the growing divergence north and south of the border. As Sturgeon put it to me, “[Johnson as PM] does further illustrate the different political trajectories of Scotland and other parts of the UK. And it raises the more fundamental question of whether the UK and therefore devolution, in its current form is capable of accommodating those differences.”

The SNP gamble is that either Johnson will happily cede more powers to Edinburgh to keep the Scots out of his hair, or that his behaviour and character will push Scotland further towards the exit. Or perhaps both. They certainly seem him as “a vision of a nightmare future”, and a gift to the cause of Scottish independence.