What was Boris up to in Scotland?

Published: 9 September 2019

Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon of Cambridge University reflect on Boris Johnson's trip to Aberdeen, arguing that it represents a form of 'unionist activism', using the central state to make the case for the Union.

A trip to Aberdeenshire last Friday rounded off what was depicted in much of the media as a disastrous week for Boris Johnson, a judgement which may be recalibrated given that his party’s UK-wide polling position has not yet been affected by the various presentational and political challenges he has faced.

The slew of critical commentary he received last week has missed the deeper lying issues behind the scheduling of his visit north of the border, and indeed its particular location. Partly this was a swift response to the concerns of Scotland’s 13 Conservative MPs about the potential impact of Ruth Davidson’s resignation on their own prospects at the coming election. But this was only part of the reason for the visit.

Johnson visited a farm in the rural constituency of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, held by the Conservatives, but containing a large majority of Remain voters, as the backdrop to his government’s announcement of a £160 million boost to Scottish farmers. This figure did not come out of thin air. It was derived from the recommendation of a review panel headed by Lord Bew, which was tasked by the May administration with considering intra-UK allocations of agricultural funding for the period from 2020 to 2022.

And this was not his government’s only act of apparent fiscal generosity in the last few days. In Chancellor Sajid Javid’s spending review, £1.2 billion of additional funding was promised for Scotland. This expenditure is the automatic outcome of the contentious Barnett formula which is used to calculate levels of public spending across the UK. But the emphasis which the government  placed upon this investment north of the border was notable.

The need to hold as many seats as the party can in a prospective general election is clearly one consideration behind these decisions. The Tories’ position north of the border worsened considerably once the Theresa May deal fell. And the bounce in support which Johnson’s election has generated elsewhere in the UK has not been replicated in Scottish polling. Last week’s YouGov poll put the Scottish Conservatives on 20% to the SNP’s 43%, figures that if repeated at an election would certainly lead to a good number of the 12 seats gained in 2017 being lost.

But deeper currents are at work here too, and these provide important – and overlooked – constraints and influences upon Johnson. For, last week’s bout of fiscal activism and his insistence that Brexit will be good for the Union in making the case for Scottish independence that much harder, reflect a notable mutation in the unionist outlook of the British conservative party which our research has picked out.

This entails a new ethos of unionist activism, which involves the central state making and showing the case for Union, seeking to do much more to wean people away from nationalist politics by demonstrating the tangible benefits it can supply, and moving away from the precautionary approach to fiscal and other kinds of engagement in the devolved territories. In combination with the seemingly blithe approach adopted by some ministers to the prospect of resuming direct rule over Northern Ireland – a shift which is bound to have major economic and political consequences - there is every prospect that a prolonged Johnson administration would result in a major shake-up of relations between the centre and devolved government across the UK.

This approach may mean that an election fought along the lines of ‘people vs parliament’ could also incubate another telling division: between a Conservative Party that presents itself as an active stalwart of the British Union and a Labour opponent which - following John McDonnell’s intimation about the terms of a prospective Labour-SNP coalition – appears less certain of its commitment to the integrity of the UK. In Scotland this is a binary that may well help the Conservatives’ efforts to present themselves as the best political prospect for pro-union voters. Whether it will be enough to save seats like West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, however, remains to be seen.

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