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Boris Johnson’s government must end threats against Scotland now

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On Friday morning, Scottish children will walk through the school doors for the last day of the term. The summer vacation is about to begin, but first it must perform a solemn and patriotic duty.

When the bell rings, they gather at the playground pole and, as the Union Jack is lifted by a beaming janny, loudly sing the song One Britain One Nation. Grammarians among them might be worried about that missing comma, but grateful tears flow down the plump young cheeks as they reach the moving sentence united forever, never parted. On the one hand, teachers keep an eye out for troublemakers who silently articulate the words to Flower of Scotland. Instead, it will be included in the official report to Whitehall, along with the names of the troublemaker parents, their father’s employment, and any known family political associations.

All the voices rise in crescendo until they reach the fourth and final repeat of the concluding line: Strong Britain! Great Nation! As the red arrows fly over, fireworks are fired and in the sky the giant, handsome but stern face of Gavin Williamson forms.

[See also:The dark side of the SNPs economic model]

In London, amid his collections of spiders and whips, Williamson suddenly wakes up from this sweaty but satisfying dream. How smart he was. How grateful people will be. Reach his bedside copy of Politics for Dummies, he begins to trace the application of his rare strategic genius to the rest of the day.

***

Nightmare. Among the many reasons Boris Johnson’s government has given Scottish trade unionists bite their fists in frustration, the Great British singalong is the tin-eared nadir, tearing up culture and insulting to the limit. The minor fact that some Scottish schools will have already broken up for the summer by Friday is almost irrelevant. The muscular unionism in the hands of this collection of weirdos, let’s be honest, is getting closer and closer to Maoist parody.

It also appears to be contagious. Michael Gove is generally a politician of intellectual seriousness and substance several times that of Williamson. He is also Scottish. And yet, the Cabinet Office guru and leader of the Save the Union campaign is showing distinct signs of cultural blindness.

In an interview this week, Gove was asked if there were any circumstances under which Johnson would grant a second independence referendum before the next election. I don’t think so, was his response. This has the advantage of being probably true. If the UK government repeals the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which imposes a five-year interval between general elections, the country could well go to the polls in 2023. It is only two years away and the SNP shows no sign of being in a position to hold a referendum before that date. Even if this parliament runs its course until 2024, the possibility of a second referendum seems increasingly unlikely with each passing month. Sturgeons ‘failure to win an absolute majority in Mays’ decentralized election had a bigger impact than his supporters are willing to admit. The independence spirit feels somewhat appeased.

But Gove must ensure that it maintains its credibility north of the border. Too many statements and actions by his and his government regarding Scotland target the relatively small and angry group of ultra-unionists. As with the independence obsessives on the other side of the argument, these people are a minority, even within their own cohort. Both governments should speak to Middle Scotland, which is the measured and considered part of the people who will ultimately decide the constitutional fate of the nation. The SNP has so far proved rather better in this area.

[See also:Why Scotland needs to end its tolerance of mediocrity]

Instead, the Westminster Conservatives seem determined to insult our intelligence. This absurd song is just the most glaring example. There are good reasons for the Scots, including, I guess, most trade unionists don’t want to sing God Save the Queen at sporting events. This London-centric determination to impose festive patriotism on the weakening of British identity is doomed to failure. What are we to make of the campaign by Conservative MP Joy Morrissey and the British Monarchists Society to put a portrait of Her Majesty in every home, business and institution that wants it? It’s not just Scots who have an allergic reaction to this kind of booster guts.

Stop that. Stop now. Stop threats that any second independence referendum will be effectively manipulated by allowing all Scots to vote, regardless of where they live in the UK. The right to vote should extend to all those registered to vote in Scotland, as was the case in 2014, and no further. As the officials who handled the provisions of the last referendum point out, any change in this regard would be devilishly complex and disruptive. And this is such an obvious Unionist solution.

Brexit has already done so much damage to union sentiment north of the border. It seems every subsequent statement by this quasi-English nationalist cabinet is aimed at displaying its emotional distancing or political contempt for non-Home Counties parts of the UK.

There is a suggestion that Ruth Davidson, now in the Lords rather than Holyrood, could be appointed constitutional secretary. It’s finally! a good idea. Davidson’s reputation in Scotland may not be what it was at its peak, but she remains a smart and savvy operator. She understands the nation and its tribes, and bears the scars of many previous battles with the SNP. Cultural awareness and sympathy is sorely lacking in Westminster’s current approach.

The reality is that although it is (for now) one Great Britain, it is made up of four nations with distinct and often competing identities. These cannot be stuck in the funnel of a single union trumpet, and attempts to do so only further alienate us. Stop the nonsense. Stop the weirdness. And wake up.

[See also: How Brexit changed us: I fear the Union may never recover]



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