Division now infects every part of our politics
Who wants Boris Johnson to be prime minister? Seriously? In this tumultuous and topsy-turvy land, the only prediction worth counting on is that a man described as mendacious, incompetent, unfit for office and incapable of caring for any human being other than himself is going to lead the UK through its most difficult time since the Second World War.
We must not stop saying how abnormal this is. That the sole consensus in an ever more divided Britain is that nothing can stop the ascent to 10 Downing Street of a man who, according to ex-editor Max Hastings, “would not recognise truth… if confronted by it in an identity parade”.
A racist with established links to the far-right strategist, Steve Bannon, who has described black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and Muslim women as looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. Virtually no one wants this, or a no-deal Brexit, and yet it is happening. The impossible continues not just to be possible but is playing out, day after day, before our panic-stricken eyes.
Meanwhile, as the nation looks on stupefied at how easily democracy can be dismantled, 160,000 Conservative members prepare to choose between Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. Members who, some polls suggest, would prefer Nigel Farage, if the option to vote for a man whose party has been deemed at “high risk” of accepting illegal donations were available.
In Holyrood, others are said to be rubbing their hands together in glee at the thought of the previously unthinkable. And not just the obvious, like Scottish Tory MPs Colin Clarke, Douglas Ross, and Ross Thompson, who delight at the thought of Johnson swatting the SNP “like a midge”.
Or the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who pretty much called Johnson a liar on national television during the EU referendum campaign but would now, as these modern amorality tales go, canvass on the doorstep for him.
This is grim, but what is equally hard to stomach is the thought of nationalists thrilled at the prospect of a Johnson premiership. It has become common parlance to describe Johnson as the SNP’s “dream candidate” because his victory can lead in one direction only.
On the road to independence. And it may be true. A Sunday Times Scotland poll found support for independence would jump to 53 per cent if Johnson became prime minister, which would give the Yes campaign a six-point lead.
In Scotland Johnson is widely loathed, with a popularity rating of -37, lower even than Farage. On this matter senior Scottish Conservatives agree. Johnson would be a “catastrophe” for the UK because his promise (or is that threat?) of a no-deal Brexit would boost support for a fresh referendum.
And so, by this bizarre and deeply distasteful logic, Johnson becomes the SNP’s greatest advertisement. Independence’s craven poster boy, standing for all that Scotland is not, and all that it must therefore break from.
“With Boris Johnson taking charge, it’s time for Scotland to walk away,” announced a recent headline of an article by veteran MSP Michael Russell on the SNP website, which concluded: “And unless Scotland walks away from it – and him – it is likely to drag us down along with the whole of the UK.”
This appears to now be the opportunistic and parochial lens through which we view this national disaster. To respond to the deep crisis south of the border, where lest we forget, 47 per cent voted to remain in the EU, by…walking away.
It’s right to distance Scottish values from the rise of Johnson and his backers, as the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has done repeatedly and consistently. It’s right to point out, as Sturgeon also has, that Johnson’s commitment to no deal, for most people in Scotland, is “a horrifying prospect”. And it’s true that his premiership would be “devastating, disastrous for the Conservatives UK-wide but particularly in Scotland”.
What’s not right is how easily this distancing tips over into the kind of nasty, short-sighted, and divisive us-and-them politics that now infects every shade of the political spectrum. How easily it threatens to become the very thing from which it seeks to distance itself.
How predictably it morphs into schadenfreude and the kind of petty-minded thinking that puts so many off nationalism, no matter how civic-minded. And how quickly the goal of independence, no matter the consequences for ‘others’, ignores the nuance of how people actually voted, feel, and live.
I’m from London but have lived in Scotland more than half my life. My children are equal parts Scottish, English and Indian. I voted yes in the independence referendum (while – and how’s this for topsy turvy? – my white Scottish partner voted no) and remain in the EU referendum. My family in London voted remain alongside 59.9 per cent of the capital.
In Leith, where I live, the remain vote was stronger still at 78 per cent. None of this is simple and every time we polarise and weaponise this deeply complex issue, we ignore the lived experience, and distress, of millions.
The fact is, it hurts me deeply to think of responding to Boris Johnson becoming prime minister of the United Kingdom by grinning and walking away.
The truth is, if I voted yes in another referendum, it would be in grief and hope rather than glee. Grief about who is in 10 Downing Street, and the timeworn politics of the establishment that have carried him there.
Hope about the kind of open-minded, just and progressive country Scotland might yet be.