Great Britain

With the union in peril, disdainful Johnson is the last man to save it | Kirsty Strickland

Boris Johnson did not mention Scotland by name, but our disunited kingdom was a feature of his “blueprint for the future of Britain” on Thursday. What he described as the most radical Queen’s speech in a generation will only exacerbate tensions. As the Queen read out a shopping list of policy plans, none of which Scotland voted for, she declared (presumably with her fingers crossed) that the integrity and prosperity of the United Kingdom was of the utmost importance to the UK government. Yet how can this be? The key pledge to leave the EU on 31 January was emphatically rejected by Scotland in 2016 and again in the general election.

Brexit has exposed the democratic deficit at the heart of the UK better than any pro-independence politician could have done. It’s an unarguably ugly reality and averting our eyes won’t disprove its existence. In the months ahead, we face a battle of strategy between Holyrood and Westminster. The latter has a mandate from England and Wales to leave the EU on the terms of Johnson’s deal, while Nicola Sturgeon has a mandate to give Scotland the chance to choose a different future.

It would seem impossible for Johnson to sloganise his way out of this growing conflict, though it appears that is exactly what he intends to do (“Get Brexit done and unleash Britain’s potential”). Such a dismissive attitude towards Scotland plays well to his base, but it is a headache for pragmatic unionist politicians in Scotland. Those who fought for the union with their heads and their hearts in 2014 because they genuinely believed that Scotland was better as part of United Kingdom look at the behaviour of the prime minister and fear it will all be for nought. His old Etonian bluff and bluster don’t charm Scottish voters and, worse for Johnson, they don’t distract them either.

While we are consumed by the short-term detail of if – when and under what circumstances the UK government will allow voters in Scotland to reconsider their constitutional future – campaigning has already begun in earnest. In 2014, a Yes vote would have cleaved the union. Since then, as the votes of Scotland have been disregarded and as resentment grows, the disintegration of the UK has become well established. Its current fragility is a feature of the broken promises that mark the last five years.

Central to the winning argument in the independence referendum was the assertion that the UK is a union of equal nations. Cries of “We love you, Scotland!’’ rang out from London and we were told with unambiguous confidence that voting No would protect our EU membership. Scotland was asked to “lead, not leave’’.

The union that wooed us in 2014 no longer exists. Brexit Britain is as far from the strong, stable and outward-looking collaborative partnership we were promised it was possible to be. In fact, it reads like a work of fiction. We were promised the safety and security of a UK, admired on the world stage, and we got Boris Johnson instead.

The prime minister has been unequivocal about this. Taking back control doesn’t apply to the Scottish parliament or Scottish votes and he gives the impression he doesn’t truly believe in the union any more than he believes in Brexit. The cracks in the UK may have formed long before he entered No 10, but it’s hard to imagine a leader less equipped to mend them.

The UK is still a voluntary union of nations and Scotland can’t be held indefinitely in this lung-crushing embrace – do the Tories think the Scots will come to their senses if only they squeeze hard enough?

It is an insult to the intelligence of Scottish voters to push the lie that their right to self-determination was time-limited to one day in 2014. The decision was not final and it was not a “once in a generation’’ chance to become independent, despite the often-quoted view of Alex Salmond at the time. Even if the former first minister had plastered that statement on the side of the bus it still wouldn’t have held any validity. Democracy is a living force with its own twists and turns; it isn’t an immovable end-point from which there can be no return.

The strategy employed by the UK government betrays a lack of confidence in the persuasiveness of their arguments. It is both counterproductive and careless. However, though the polls have tightened since Johnson’s election, there is not yet a consistent majority for independence.

Some soft No voters are wavering, but they haven’t made the leap yet. Many are willing the UK government to do something to persuade them that this is a union worth fighting for. Their concerns about independence haven’t disappeared, but what has is the status quo they voted for in 2014.

For her part, Sturgeon must balance the responsibilities as first minister with the expectations placed on her as Scottish National party leader. Her critics want her to move swiftly towards the as-yet-undefined plan B if Boris Johnson continues to block indyref2. They urge her to be bolder and more reactive in facing down the bullish UK government.

You get the sense that some are hoping for supporters of independence to lose their cool in this moment. Civil disobedience would be a gift for the prime minister and his well-heeled cabinet. His understanding of Scotland relies on outdated stereotypes, so imagine the pleasure he would feel in condemning the rough, uncivil Scots for their thuggery.

The sizable proportion of the Scottish population who support independence are too canny to fall into that trap. While the anger felt is real and growing, it is also recognised that indyref2 is not a case of if, but when.

As we near the end of what has been a profoundly defining year for British politics, the shaky partnership between Scotland and the rest of the UK looks and feels like it’s approaching its end. If Johnson continues to ignore the votes and voice of Scotland, he could well be the last prime minister of the United Kingdom.

Kirsty Strickland is a writer based in Glasgow