Boris Johnson’s government may be pretty incompetent at most things but you can’t fault its ability to sniff out a topic to rally its base to its side. The number of undocumented migrants crossing the English Channel does not begin to fill the gaps left by all those people who needlessly died with Covid-19 owing to the government’s negligence, but the government gleefully seized on a fresh opportunity to whip up its parochial white English nationalist base against those of duskier skin tones who are desperate enough to clamber into unseaworthy dinghies and against a concocted alliance of lawyers, human rights activists, the French and other ne’erdowells.
Sadly, this works. The government may be removing one string from its bow for dealing with unwanted asylum seekers when it leaves the EU and abandons the Dublin Convention, but its supporters are willing to blame foreigners for not being sufficiently enthusiastic about being offered the privilege of defending Britain’s territorial waters gratuitously. Helping asylum seekers, in their view, is something to be proud of in Britain’s past or to be palmed off onto other (often poorer) countries, not something that Britain should be undertaking itself in the here and now.
The government’s myriad failings are forgotten about while the coalition of the old, the ignorant and the malign are satisfied that the government is on their side. For as long as values matter more to these voters than a trace of competence or integrity, the Conservatives can expect to retain healthy polling tallies.
This requires, however, the government to keep in touch with these voters’ values, and not to allow that voter base itself to become split on a question of values. And here the government has a potential problem coming down the track.
The SNP’s poll ratings are sky-high. They surprisingly* failed to secure an overall majority in Holyrood in 2016, but they look much more likely than not to get one next year with a mandate to hold a fresh referendum on Scottish independence. Boris Johnson is going to need to decide whether to acquiesce.
Either way, the question is likely to be central to the next few years’ politics. If the British government were seen to be thwarting the democratically-expressed wishes of the Scottish people, that would be incendiary in Scotland and in all likelihood the decisive estrangement between the Scottish people and the UK government. British politics would reverberate with protests, civil disobedience and a chaotic constitutional crisis all the way to the next election.
If the government agrees to such a referendum, that’s another 18 months that will be spent taking up the public’s energies on a constitutional question and one where the British government would be obliged to make the same arguments that the Remain camp made in the EU referendum campaign. Moreover, if a referendum is called, you’d have to expect the Yessers to win this time round – the No team lack any voices that the Scottish public would be prepared to listen to, never mind get behind.
That would suggest that Boris Johnson should be saying Nae to Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a referendum and whipping up anti-Scottish sentiment as a way of squeezing his supporters into his voting pen. Unfortunately for the government, its own base of English nationalists is not secure. The next staging post of English nationalism has been to divide it into two camps: imperialists and those pursuing pure Englishness. As Guido Fawkes notes both Conservatives and Leavers divide almost exactly 50:50 on the question of whether England should go independent, Leavers narrowly in favour and Conservatives narrowly opposed.
Perhaps the circle can be squared. Many of the England-alone nationalists may well be sufficiently indifferent to the Scots as not to care if they are being deprived of their right of self-determination, and indeed some may be actively gleeful about it. Many of these voters will take their lead from Boris Johnson and after the fact tell themselves that they had always believed what his government’s policy eventually turns out to be.
There is, however, a substantial risk that a chunk of the Conservatives’ voting base may find itself on the other side of a question of values. If such voters find themselves outside the tribe, it must be doubtful whether they would be as charitable to the government’s never-ending cavalcade of gross mistakes and the air of sleaze that hangs over it like a bad smell. Only tribe members think tribally.
So this is going to require some finesse. How does the Prime Minister plan to keep his entire English nationalist base on board and sharing his values?
And in the longer term, what does Boris Johnson see as the future of the United Kingdom? To date, it has worked best when it was a shared endeavour between its component parts. But he has already betrayed Northern Ireland in the Brexit talks and increasingly the United Kingdom is looking less like a union of equals and more like an English empire. If all he has to offer to Scotland is money, sooner or later it will break away. He should know that as well as anyone. He has some urgent thinking to do.
*To most people. I noted beforehand that it was a value bet that they’d come up short.