Alex Salmond: Boris Johnson's departure is a 'danger' to Scottish independence
Going, going, going, going... gone, well at least he will be by September.
And, of course, he really had to go.
When Boris Johnson spoke of the “herd instinct” of Tory MPs, he underrated the extent to which his fate was effectively sealed when that arch establishment figure Simon McDonald deftly plunged a stiletto into his back, by exposing the half truths and dissembling at the heart of the Downing Street operation. Once the British establishment moves against a Tory prime minister, then the game is well and truly up.
The independence movement in Scotland may be partying at the news of Johnson’s demise, but the great danger of all the best parties is the hangover which can follow.
If Johnson was indeed a rallying figure for Scottish nationalism, then who will do the rallying in the post-Boris world? And how does the timetable for Johnson’s departure impact on Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for independence?
There is no chance of an early election and there never has been. Second only to self interest, self-preservation is the most powerful instinct of the Tory party. The one unifying theme shared by all factions of the party is avoiding an election when they are down and almost out.
So if the big bête noire is gone what is to be done to progress the independence case?
Firstly, if you can’t rely on your opponents to galvanise your supporters then you have to do it yourself. The First Minister’s appeal for a Section 30 to Johnson was half-hearted, anticipating the inevitable refusal. But why should Scotland take No for an answer?
Far from being a problem, Johnson’s determination to hang on to his free tenancy in Downing Street for the next three months or so is a godsend for campaigning purposes and for Scotland.
But to be effective, people have to feel the outrage and have it illustrated by popular demonstration and parliamentary intervention. My view is that the unionist parties deeply underrate the sense of grievance among ordinary folk that what they democratically voted for last year in Scotland, is being frustrated undemocratically this year by Westminster. Meanwhile the SNP have been painfully slow in refurbishing the independence case to meet the hard realities of 2022 and beyond. It is difficult to inspire without a positive platform.
Johnson is now the lame duck presiding over a power vacuum at Westminster. That means power, influence and authority lies elsewhere. It’s time to use it before we lose it. The people have been pledged a poll on 19 October 2023. They could get pretty upset if it is not delivered, particularly in the apparent absence of a sustained campaign to secure one.
Secondly, lower expectations on the Supreme Court. The idea that Scottish sovereignty would be protected by the appointed bench in Middlesex Guildhall, two minutes walk from the Palace of Westminster, was always far-fetched. And the revelation that the Lord Advocate, who will presumably plead the case, herself lacks the “necessary degree of confidence” in the argument makes the move the ultimate long shot - not even a Hail Mary pass.
Thirdly, sort out what a “plebiscite election” really means. The SNP started with confusion about whether a mandate was a majority of seats or votes and then were none too sure if an early election, before the Supreme Court knock back, would qualify as such a plebiscite poll. If it is indeed to be votes, then the bar for success has just been raised to an extraordinarily high level.
No single political party has managed this since the Second World War. The SNP in 2015 and Labour in 1966 did come mighty close but the Tories managed it in 1955 only in alliance with the National Liberals. It is a very high bar indeed.
Apart from that daunting target, the problems with fighting the independence poll in the normal party political way are obvious. Back in 2014 no one really questioned the Scottish Government’s credentials in competently running the country. Now in tougher economic times, which are set to get much tougher still, it is very much an issue. No doubt the unionist press exaggerate the failings but the weaknesses are certainly there.
To date, this problem has been mitigated for the SNP by the fact that whatever shortcomings there are in Edinburgh, they have been blown away by the Boris blundering in London. With Johnson gone this can’t be guaranteed, although it should be said that the Tories in any leadership contest can usually be relied upon to select the person least fitted for the job.
All the more reason to consider making a “plebiscite election” special, with one agreed candidate for independence in each constituency backed by Scotland United. It will increase the chance of vaulting over the self-imposed high bar on the popular vote and help to ensure that the election is fought on independence, and not on the SNP’s domestic record.
I am rather hoping that Johnson will be the second last British Prime Minister. The very first one was Horace Walpole who cursed the jingoistic crowds celebrating the onset of the War of Jenkins’ Ear with the prediction “They may ring their bells now, before long they will be wringing their hands”.
The national movement needs to adjust strategy right now to meet the post-Boris world if we are to avoid Walpole’s warning applying to Scotland.
Alex Salmond is the leader of the Alba Party. He is a former first minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP