Scotland’s struggle against Boris Johnson is a holiday from reality

The country’s progressive self-image offers no escape from the tragedy of being a small, deindustrialised nation in a world of big extremes.

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Boris Johnson wasn’t the only privileged, tousle-haired Londoner to arrive in the Scottish capital this week. The Edinburgh Festival is about to begin, and the city is bracing for its annual overdose of people for whom “Edinburgh” is a month rather than a place. The Prime Minister was, however, the only one being booed on arrival, as crowds gathered outside Nicola Sturgeon’s official residence at Bute House to deliver the festival’s first no-star review. As the commentator Pat Kane noted on Twitter, Scottish protests against right-wing English politicians are media catnip, enlivening Britain’s bland old parliamentary stew with a sprinkle of Celtic spice. To the British political imagination, radicalism and irreverence are best delegated to the untameable provinces, and Johnson will be content with the idea that popular disgust at his rise to power is figuratively and territorially confined to the fringes.

Many on the Scottish left are happy to go along with this characterisation of their compatriots as implacable radicals, and nationalists are invigorated by the notion of a supine English electorate. But Scotland’s cross-party opposition to Johnson is far more moderate and cautious in character than the romantic image lets on. Everyone from Ruth Davidson to Richard Leonard has denounced him at some point, united in their appeal to a genuinely popular desire among Scots for competent, representative administration. This desire has been frustrated by successive Westminster governments, but is given a new intensity by the occupation of Downing Street by a man who appears to have traced his personal brand over our crudest caricature of a pompous, entitled and bungling English Tory.

Sturgeon is keen to use Johnson as evidence of a renewed divergence between Scottish and English “values,” an ancient nationalist theme that, since the 1980s, has tended to explicitly plot those values onto a simple left-right spectrum – with England veering right and Scotland edging left. Johnson’s visit to Edinburgh coincided with the arrival in town of the 2019 TEDSummit, whose combination of liberal evangelism and shareable cod-sociology provided Sturgeon with an ideal platform to differentiate herself and – on the international stage – the country she leads, from the blonde horror in the south.

Her 10-minute pitch focused on the case for an alternative way of measuring national “success” to Gross Domestic Product. The latter, she noted, “values activity in the short term that boosts the economy, even if that activity is hugely damaging.” A new, international focus on “well-being” should replace this, and indeed is already being explored by a coalition of small nations comprising New Zealand, Iceland and, of course, Scotland.

To some people in Scotland, and abroad, this is inspiring stuff. It is nevertheless the radicalism of the bureaucrat, for whom class conflict and climate emergency are technical more than political problems. In their eyes, meeting such policy challenges requires not the acquisition and exercise of power by those with a vested interest in ending them, but better data-gathering techniques by those already in power, who – oops! – allowed them to happen in the first place. Occupying the spreadsheets won’t stop fossil fuel companies and other multinational corporations from exploiting the labour and resources of any country they can get their claws into, and if a politician needs more data before they can recognise those things as a danger to life as we know it, then they shouldn’t be in power anyway.

Sturgeon’s speech is part of a shift in the rhetoric of Scottish differentiation from England, moving away from the left-right divergence of Thatcherism to the older, more cosmopolitan values of Edinburgh’s 18th-century Enlightenment. Referencing Adam Smith, her call for a new way of conceptualising the wealth of nations was no disinterested defence of progressive rationality; it quietly pitted a key historical element of “Scotland: The Brand” against England’s apparent departure from common sense. The report of the SNP’s recent “Sustainable Growth Commission” on the economics of independence, chaired by the former investment banker and corporate lobbyist Andrew Wilson, contains a telling rebuke of Michael Gove’s most notorious Brexit campaign slogan: “Scotland, we think, has not had enough of experts.”

Scots have always tended to lean their own makeshift identity against something else, and there are several versions of Scotland-Against-Boris, depending on which constituency is being mobilised or defended against him. Ruth Davidson wants to insulate the Tories against middle-class disdain for his vulgarity and his Brexit strategy; Labour’s Richard Leonard, for some reason, is attempting to attack him as a “threat to the Union.” This tacit endorsement of the SNP’s escape-route case for independence is almost parodically Scottish: yes, the whole house is on fire, but we mustn’t risk breaking any of the expensive windows to get out. But the prevailing version of Scotland-Against-Boris among the people who run devolved Scotland is one where deference to expertise is not demonised but fetishised, not only as a necessary component of social progress but its most basic condition of possibility.

This is as fantastical as all the other versions, and painfully out of kilter with what’s actually going on in the country. Scotland’s sensible administrators have done little to stop the ongoing collapse of the country’s industrial base, which I’ve covered in recent articles: the struggling BiFab renewables fabrication yards in Fife recently heard that they will construct just eight out of 53 wind turbine jackets for a wind farm on their doorstep, with the rest of the work going to Indonesia. The 160-year old “Caley” Railworks in Glasgow closed, seemingly for the last time, last week, with the required investment for modernisation not forthcoming as its owners consolidate their efforts in England. Government “experts” will benefit from this process, for an offshore economy demands increasingly fine-tuned adaptation to international markets, but democracy – and the rest of the Scottish people – will not.

It is not really the Scottish people whom Scotland’s leaders and commentators have in mind when they pay tribute to our tradition of enlightened cosmopolitanism; quite the opposite. In 1967, Tom Nairn – a Fifer himself – came up from his base in London to review that year’s Edinburgh Festival for the New Statesman. He was struck by an exhibition about the 18th-century New Town, an arrogant sandstone chunk of the city just north of Edinburgh Castle that was built to embody the civic rationality of the nation’s celebrity philosophers. Scotland's famous enlightenment philosophers were revered by 20th-century nationalists, but Nairn noted that these “giants” had in fact pursued “the most positive and brilliant escape from the tragedy of being Scottish… The driving impulse of this great era was escape from the particularity of Scotland, on to the plane of the Universal – to an abstract truth and a cosmopolitan culture owing nothing to their origins." .... "In this moment of grandeur", he added,  "Scotland discovered the right way of not being herself.”

Boris Johnson, in his own way, has offered us a new means of not being ourselves – of enlightened escape from the tragedy of being a small, deindustrialised nation with modest ambitions in a world of big extremes. Sturgeon is using Britain’s new Prime Minister as an opportunity to project as much Scottish “soft” power as possible, but she knows that her country can’t enlighten itself out of its current bind. 

The SNP has done what it thinks it can with devolution. Whatever more it needs – be it extra state investment or an independence referendum – must be agreed to by the country that voted for Brexit. Two decades of devolved optimism have been crumbling since 2016, and the quick fix of flattery-by-comparison can only take up the slack for so long. Should polite diplomacy with the new regime fail, there isn’t much else Sturgeon can do but wait for things to improve. The dream of Scotland-Against-Boris may provide respite from Scotland-Under-Boris, but the latter is closer to reality. Sturgeon’s call for national “well-being” sounds nice, but we’re better represented by another festival-sceptic, Trainspotting’s Mark Renton: “it’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference.”

Rory Scothorne is completing a PhD on the relationship between the Scottish radical left and nationalism, and is the co-author of Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland.

 

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