Everyone, including the First Minister, accepts that Boris Johnson won an historic victory on December 12th and is highly likely to achieve Brexit by January 31st and look forward to five years of rule but fat majority. There is a reasonable expectation that this same fat majority will allow him to face down the more rabid Brexiteers around the ERG and take the sensible tack he did as Mayor of London, where he built a fair reputation for gathering competent people around him and let them do the hard work while he built bridges to the myriad communities in that most cosmopolitan of cities.
And to prevent the many blue bricks bulldozed out of Labour’s northern “Red Wall” from turning red again at the first opportunity, he needs to woo ‘Workington Man’ with some real infrastructure, employment and social investment that does not risk him being taken up an alley behind the Tunbridge Wells Bridge Club. That, plus the heavy task on coming good on the economic boost promised by trade deals with all comers should keep him very busy all the way to 2024, when his tenure will next be tested.
Which is a shame. Because the Union, about which he claims to feel so strongly, is likely to be falling apart by then. He has already picked a fight with a resurgent SNP by flatly denying that the mandate they won in Scotland is even more convincing than his own impressive one in England. Whatever the legal situation, it is hard to see democratic justification for asserting his 43% UK vote share entitles him to Thatcher-esque autocracy over the UK when the SNP’s 47% does not entitle them to a similar mandate in Scotland.
And it is not just intransigent Canute act with the Scots that will endanger his precious Union. With its habitual Anglo-centric bent, the London media was even more scant in its reading of implications of election results in Northern Ireland than in Scotland. Although not as clear cut as the SNP’s sweep of 80% of seats, for the first time, the dour voices of Ulster Unionists did not secure a majority of the 19 seats. The DUP won 8, losing their Westminster leader in the process; Sinn Fein won 7; SDLP 2 and the non-sectarian Alliance 1.
With Stormont out of action for three years, with the DUP no longer relevant as Westminster kingmakers and public services (especially the NHS) drifting with no political guidance, the sense of impotence and abandonment that drove Scots into the arms of the SNP may well do similar in Ulster. Boris’ “Deal” that effectively puts a border n the Irish Sea and the ever-stronger economic ties with Eire will have the people of the six counties wondering just who their friends really are.
Quite apart from his temperament, given that the ‘Unionist’ part of his party’s name actually refers to Ireland, Boris will be in no frame of mind to treat aspirations in Northern Ireland any less peremptorily than he already has done to the Scots. However much the ‘One Nation” epithet Boris may apply to himself and even his party, it will be a stretch for him to reach, address and satisfy his converts in Leigh, Sedgefield, Grimsby, Wakefield, etc., let alone Kensington and the Tory shires.
Take one look at the coloured media maps of the election result by constituency. England and Wales are covered with a patchwork of Tory blue surrounding red islands of Labour. Scotland is wall-to-wall yellow. Northern Ireland has neither red or blue but swathes of other colours. It looks more like three different countries—certainly not like a union.
As England’s population of 55 million represents 72% of the entire UK (77m), it is natural that it should dominate debate. But, as with the crucial Brexit debate, the degree to which Remain-voting components of the UK (Scotland and Northern Ireland) were drowned out by the disproportionate scale of England’s voice. The word ‘union’ implies that there are two or more elements involved. If, as happened with oil and now with Brexit, the larger partner in the union ignores the other to follow its own purposes, yet requires the smaller partner to comply with its every whim, then this verges on abuse, Similar behaviour between two people in a marriage would be considered unacceptable and justify divorce, irrespective of the wishes of the other partner.
It is possible that, having formed a stable government on the back of his large majority, Boris may soften his confrontational attitude towards junior members of the Union. He may see the tension into which Spain is thrown by aggressive repression of a clearly democratic effort by Catalans to secure themselves as a county. Or he may be swept up by the London-centric fixation of the Tory party and consider the HS2 project adequate recompense for the rest of the country to balance the £billions thrown at CrossRail.
Unfortunately, the Tory track record on perceiving that a union requires consideration of other partners is poor. From Highland estates, to oil, to Trident at Faslane, to Thatcher’s Sermon on the Mound and the Feeble Fifty, to opposition to a Scottish Parliament, to Brexit and now to a second referendum, the priority has been on one nation: England and its best interests. They tried to rule the American colonies in England’s interest and lost the greatest asset the Empire ever had. Even when forced by revolt and bloodshed to let Ireland leave the Union, they held on to six Irish counties. Look how well that turned out over the last century, when compared with a peaceful and now more prosperous Republic.
Remaining parts of the Union might as well be colonies, for all the say they have…or may ever have under “One Nation” Tories.