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Boris Johnson Leaves Behind a Toxic Legacy in Scotland

The next British prime minister will inherit an intractable constitutional stalemate.

By , a political journalist in Glasgow, Scotland.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves after making a statement in front of No. 10 Downing St. in London on July 7. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson officially exits Downing Street on Sept. 6, he leaves his successor with a pile of challenges on their desk, from Russia’s war in Ukraine to record inflation and an economy on the brink of recession. But the most intractable domestic problem that awaits the incoming Conservative Party leader—either Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, or current Foreign Secretary Liz Truss—is the constitutional future of the United Kingdom itself. Johnson didn’t want to be the last prime minister of a fractured union, and he won’t be.

In June, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), laid out a new road map to Scottish independence. Conservative ministers have consistently rebuffed her appeals to negotiate a rerun of the 2014 independence referendum, but Sturgeon said the U.K. Supreme Court should rule on whether Scotland’s devolved national parliament can stage an advisory referendum on self-government. An independence vote held without the prime minister’s approval still wouldn’t be politically binding, and constitutional reform theoretically remains under Westminster’s control.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court will assess the Scottish parliament’s powers on Oct. 11 and 12, one month after Johnson formally steps down. If the judges decide it can, Scotland will press ahead with a new independence vote on Oct. 19, 2023, with or without Westminster’s consent. If the court rules against Sturgeon, the SNP will turn the next U.K. general election, likely in 2024, into a de facto plebiscite on the break-up of the British state. This strategy is high-risk: The SNP would need to win more than 50 percent of votes in Scotland, something the party didn’t manage even in its 2015 landslide. Failure would mean the end of the Scottish independence dream for now and could prompt Sturgeon’s resignation.

When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson officially exits Downing Street on Sept. 6, he leaves his successor with a pile of challenges on their desk, from Russia’s war in Ukraine to record inflation and an economy on the brink of recession. But the most intractable domestic problem that awaits the incoming Conservative Party leader—either Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, or current Foreign Secretary Liz Truss—is the constitutional future of the United Kingdom itself. Johnson didn’t want to be the last prime minister of a fractured union, and he won’t be.

In June, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), laid out a new road map to Scottish independence. Conservative ministers have consistently rebuffed her appeals to negotiate a rerun of the 2014 independence referendum, but Sturgeon said the U.K. Supreme Court should rule on whether Scotland’s devolved national parliament can stage an advisory referendum on self-government. An independence vote held without the prime minister’s approval still wouldn’t be politically binding, and constitutional reform theoretically remains under Westminster’s control.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court will assess the Scottish parliament’s powers on Oct. 11 and 12, one month after Johnson formally steps down. If the judges decide it can, Scotland will press ahead with a new independence vote on Oct. 19, 2023, with or without Westminster’s consent. If the court rules against Sturgeon, the SNP will turn the next U.K. general election, likely in 2024, into a de facto plebiscite on the break-up of the British state. This strategy is high-risk: The SNP would need to win more than 50 percent of votes in Scotland, something the party didn’t manage even in its 2015 landslide. Failure would mean the end of the Scottish independence dream for now and could prompt Sturgeon’s resignation.

Whether a new referendum takes place or not, the next Tory leader will have to grapple with Johnson’s toxic political legacy in Scotland, where he was a uniquely off-putting presence. He fronted the 2016 campaign for Brexit, which Scots rejected by a margin of 24 points. He said devolution had been a “disaster north of the border” when most Scots, including many who oppose independence, support extending the Edinburgh parliament’s powers. Furthermore, Scots disliked Johnson’s characterization—when he was still mayor of London—of Scotland as a sluggish provincial outgrowth, weighing down the economic dynamism of the English capital.

Johnson will leave the prime minister’s office with an 83 percent disapproval rating in Scotland. Few English politicians, and perhaps none since Margaret Thatcher, have been so viscerally disliked by the Scottish electorate. In fact, the discontent with the prime minister was accompanied by rising enthusiasm for self-government in Scotland. Between June 2020 and January 2021, 19 consecutive polls registered majority support for independence among Scottish voters. In May 2021, the SNP and the Scottish Greens, its coalition partner, won the Scottish parliamentary elections, marking 14 consecutive years of nationalist dominance at Holyrood.

The Conservative Party’s problems in Scotland do not start and end with Johnson, unfortunately for his successor. The last Tory leader to win majority Scottish support in a general election was Anthony Eden 67 years ago. Scotland’s experience with Thatcher in the 1970s and 1980s was formative, especially her ill-calculated poll tax, which was introduced in Scotland before the rest of the United Kingdom. Her experiments in privatization and tight monetary control ultimately failed in Scotland, as elsewhere, and she staunchly refused to concede any ground to its accelerating demands for constitutional autonomy. Scotland’s devolutionary ambitions were finally fulfilled in 1997, only after the end of Thatcherite rule.

As prime minister, Johnson made one notable attempt to bolster the union of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. When he first entered Downing Street in 2019, he promised to “level Britain up.” Through a targeted campaign of state-financed spending, his government planned to reduce the stark disparities in growth and prosperity between the various parts of the United Kingdom, which has the highest rates of regional inequality in Western Europe. In Glasgow, Scotland, the average man can expect to live to 73. In the Chilterns, just outside London, average male life expectancy is 83 years.

However, these disparities are a tangible part of the Tories’ historic economic footprint in Scotland. Since Thatcher, successive Westminster administrations have ruthlessly prioritized the expansion of London’s financial sector at the expense of the country’s industrial heartlands in northern England, Wales, and central Scotland, and Scots have cast their ballots accordingly. At any rate, Johnson’s reformist zeal didn’t last, and as the political crises associated with his premiership mounted, his leveling-up agenda fizzled out.

Within Scotland, the public tends to see Toryism as a marginal and Anglicized force. Scottish unionist sentiment has been weakening since at least the 1970s. Today, the Scottish Tories sit third in Scottish opinion polls, behind the SNP and the Labour Party. Their leader, Douglas Ross, flip-flopped repeatedly over Johnson’s resignation earlier this year and has shown little of the versatility needed to take on the SNP. But he is also hamstrung by Scotland’s well-hewed anti-Tory instincts: Why would Scottish voters endorse a party that has been indifferent to their interests for so long?

The Conservative Party has reconciled itself to devolution rhetorically, but it remains unsettled by a constitutional system that allows pockets of entrenched power to exist on the Celtic peripheries. Brexit seemed to intensify the centralizing tendencies of Johnson’s government. In 2020, the Tories passed the controversial Internal Market Bill, which repatriated key regulatory powers to Westminster from Brussels that should have reverted back to decision-making bodies in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast. Tory ministers tried to justify the bill as a minor bureaucratic reform. The SNP called it a “power grab.”

Sunak and Truss served together in Johnson’s administration, and there is little evidence that either candidate will improve the tone of Tory engagement with Scotland. Both politicians have preemptively dismissed Sturgeon’s request for a Section 30 order, the constitutional mechanism that enabled the first Scottish referendum and which would bypass the need for a Supreme Court ruling. Truss, a career politician with a penchant for Thatcherite photo-ops, and Sunak, a former banker whose marital wealth makes him the richest lawmaker in the House of Commons, have shown little interest in Scottish issues.

To the extent that either candidate has attempted to address the Scottish question, they have kept with their party’s reactionary drift. Asked how to approach the SNP at a leadership campaign event on Aug. 2, Truss described Sturgeon as an “attention seeker” who should be “ignored.” Sunak is less vocally belligerent, but his track record on Scottish issues is not much better. In 2020, it was reported that Sunak allegedly supported breaking up the United Kingdom because it would financially benefit England. Sunak denies this, but the story resonated nonetheless: The Tory right has long argued that Scotland’s relatively high spending on public services is funded by the generosity of English taxpayers.

So, what changes with one of them in the prime minister’s seat? Truss’s political instincts are like Johnson’s: populist and improvisational. Sunak is a Treasury technocrat with a questionable grasp of British constitutional dynamics. Neither candidate is likely to deviate from Johnson’s opposition to a second Scottish independence referendum, and both can be characterized as Brexit unionists. They see the union as a non-negotiable pillar of the British state—central to its political stability—but in truth England remains the pro-Brexit right’s chief constituency. When either Truss or Sunak has paid lip service to leveling up, they have done so as part of the Tories’ ongoing pitch to Eurosceptic voters in northern England, not to disaffected nationalists in Scotland.

On economic policy, Sunak has made clear that his immediate goal as prime minister would be to tackle inflation, while Truss wants tax cuts and deregulation. The major beneficiary of any additional U.K. government spending under the next administration is likely to be the British Armed Forces. Righting the historic wrongs of deindustrialization, in Scotland or any other part of the United Kingdom, has barely featured in the Tory leadership contest. Instead, both candidates have fought ferociously with one another to claim the mantle of Thatcherism, with rhetoric that still sounds jarring to Scottish ears.

Counterintuitively, another defiant Tory leader with little support in Scotland could present an opportunity for Sturgeon and the SNP, which isn’t truly ready to fight another referendum campaign. As the next election approaches, Sturgeon will argue that the Tory government has locked Scotland inside the union against its will. Likewise, Sturgeon can bolster her party without taking Scotland out of the United Kingdom, which is more logistically complicated than she has so far acknowledged. The SNP has yet to explain how an independent Scotland—within the European Union—would avoid a hard border through Britain.

The end of Johnson’s leadership could have prompted a reset in Anglo-Scottish relations. But as things stand, Britain is heading into another period of constitutional stalemate. Scots have no reason to expect a new approach from Downing Street. Neither Sunak nor Truss has the political imagination to rewire Scotland’s antipathy toward the Tories, either through a fresh distribution of devolutionary powers or a dramatic reordering of British economic orthodoxy. However the Supreme Court rules, the next Tory leader will do what they can to constrain the cause of Scottish independence, and Scottish nationalists will do what they can to advance it. Johnson’s premiership may be over, but the Scotland problem facing the Tories isn’t going anywhere.

Jamie Maxwell is a political journalist in Glasgow, Scotland.
Twitter: @jamiedmaxwell

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