Boris & the nightmare of Lady MacStalin
After Alex Salmond, Scotland’s former first minister, claimed his successor Nicola Sturgeon had misled parliament and orchestrated a vendetta against him, for a moment it looked as if Sturgeon – aka Lady MacStalin – might be forced to resign, derailing the Scottish National Party’s expected victory at the 6 May elections – its planned curtain-raiser to demanding a second independence referendum.
Salmond has compiled a compelling case, alleging that in 2018 people around Sturgeon conspired to have him sent to prison over sexual misconduct charges of which he was acquitted – the judge ruled the government’s action against him was biased and directed he be paid £512,250 to cover his legal costs. What emerges clearly from the Scottish parliament’s investigation of the affair is Sturgeon’s determination to go after Salmond, even after her lawyers advised the case would likely fail. This cost a further estimated £150,000. The Scottish Tories argue spending public money against legal advice breaches the ministerial code, usually a resignation matter. As is failing to record meetings involving government business, which she did repeatedly. In addition, Salmond claims Sturgeon misled parliament about when she heard about the allegations against him, yet another resignation matter.
Few observers doubt Sturgeon acted in a dodgy fashion over the Salmond affair. She promised to ‘co-operate fully’ with the inquiry into the case against him, but stonewalled. For example, when asked for her diary for 2 April, 2018, the day of a meeting with Salmond regarding the claims, a blank sheet of paper was produced. Questioned at the inquiry, she claimed around a hundred times she couldn’t remember key meetings or conversations. Suggesting that the separation of powers has given way under fourteen years of SNP rule to corrupt cronyism, the prosecution service, whose head sits in Sturgeon’s cabinet, pressured parliament into censoring Salmond’s written testimony in sections potentially embarrassing to her. Scotland’s High Court had made clear that there were no reasons not to publish it. But Sturgeon says she wouldn’t quit even if the inquiry found she broke the ministerial code – unlikely anway as the inquiry is SNP-dominated. With the SNP also dominating the parliament, there’s no danger of her losing a no-confidence vote.
Latest polls suggest the saga is cutting through: 43 per cent say they now trust Sturgeon less (up 7 per cent since December) and 61 per cent believe she should resign if found to have broken the ministerial code; support for the SNP is down but polls still point to a win by a slender majority. If Sturgeon doesn’t receive an unlikely damning judgment from the inquiry, chances are she’ll retain her majority on 6 May. Not too many SNP voters are likely to turn against her because she got dates of meetings wrong or didn’t take notes at them. Also in her favour is the absence of an obvious motive about why she would turn on her political ally, mentor and friend.
After 22 consecutive polls showing support for independence, the latest ones show 52-48 against. But momentum could easily move back her way – support for independence remains strong. That reflects the SNP’s control of Scotland since 2007, allowing it to peddle its propaganda of national grievance and victimhood. Moreover though originally notorious for its Nazi leanings, the SNP in recent times has aligned with the Left, and so is treated gently by much of the media. Other key reasons are that 62 per cent of Scots voted to remain in the EU and the perception in Scotland of Boris Johnson as a pantomime English toff.
Johnson’s entirely reasonable position is that the 2014 Scottish referendum was accepted, including by the SNP, as a ‘once in a generation’ event and that the UK government would not accept another for many years. But if the SNP wins comfortably in May, it’s doubtful he could continue to resist. Some argue that the UK should accept a second referendum and Scottish independence if that cause wins on the model of the Czech-Slovak ‘velvet divorce’. Underpinning that view is that the UK can hardly object if Scotland wants its sovereignty back – as did Britain through Brexit.
Still, the Johnson government will do everything possible to persuade Scots that would be an unwise choice. It is already making it clearer to Scots, no longer enriched by North Sea oil and gas, how much financial support it provides. And it’s pointing out how Scotland will benefit from global trade deals it’s negotiated, such as US removal of tariffs on its whisky. It will also stress the negatives of joining the EU, including a hard border with England, where 60 per cent of Scotland’s exports go, and Brussels’ likely insistence of handing back control over its fishing waters. Scotland would have to commit to adopting the euro.
Other tough questions will be asked. Would the republican-at-heart SNP keep the Queen as head of state? Would it expel Britain’s nuclear-armed Trident submarine fleet from its Scottish base? And would it risk the favour of its Greenpeace-friendly supporters by applying for NATO membership?
Scots would think twice about independence if Spain or Belgium’s Francophone half committed to veto an independent Scotland joining the EU – for fear it would encourage Catalonia or Flanders to follow suit. Against that, much of the EU establishment would want to welcome Scotland as an ‘up yours’ to the Brexiteers.
There has been no more successful partnership than that of England and Scotland, established 418 years ago following the death of Elizabeth I. The end of a united Great Britain would mean wrenching changes. The terms ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ could no longer be used as short hand for the UK. The BBC would have to change its name. The Cross of St Andrew would have to disappear from the Union Jack as would the unicorn and Scottish lion from the UK’s coat of arms. Unfortunately for Johnson, there’s still a real prospect he could be remembered above all as the prime minister who presided over this disaster.
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Mark Higgie is The Spectator Australia’s Europe correspondent
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