Why is the presence of Boris Johnson so important to the prospect of Scottish independence? Why is it so important to the fate of the Scottish Conservatives? How are both questions connected?
One way to answer these questions is to think back to the relative success of the Scottish Conservatives in the most recent elections in Westminster and Holyrood. During this period, the party’s Scottish strategy was simple and effective:
- Focus on its leader in Scotland – Ruth Davidson – and downplay the party.
- Focus almost exclusively on opposing a second referendum on Scottish independence.
- Promote Ruth Davidson’s image – as a competent, reliable, and therefore trustworthy leader – to give weight to its message on the referendum.
Another is to remember that some key UK factors helped facilitate this approach:
- UK Prime Ministers – David Cameron and Theresa May – were relatively respectful towards Scottish political actors and relatively sympathetic to the Scottish context.
- Until the Brexit debate and its aftermath, they were often able to project a sense of order and use it to highlight a set of relatively consistent rules, norms, and expectations about how politics should work.
In that context, think about the extent to which any of these factors now hold:
- Boris Johnson will often overshadow the Scottish party and its leader, reinforcing the old association between (a) support for constitutional change, and (b) opposition to the Conservatives.
- He will likely slip up, either by appearing to favour a second Scottish referendum on impulse, or by opposing it in an unhelpful way.
- His reputation for incompetent buffoonery may seem cute to his supporters, but embarrassing and damaging to Scottish Conservatives.
- He is already on record as being disrespectful to the Scottish case, and will be under relatively high pressure to ‘stand up for England’ in the way that the SNP has become known as ‘standing up for Scotland’.
- All bets are off in relation to the idea that there is a standard way to deal with demands for things like referendums.
Put more simply, the person in charge of telling the SNP not to be so gung ho, unreasonable, or obsessed with national identity and independence from an external authority, will be Boris Johnson.