Is Boris Johnson the Man to Save the Union?

25 November 2013

This is not as obviously a Question to Which the Answer is No as it may initially seem. The Mayor of London is, in fact, well-placed to play a significant part in the campaign to persuade Scots their interests still lie within the United Kingdom.

In the first place, as the titular leader of europe’s greatest city he has no obvious or immediate dog in the fight. Neither Boris’s reputation nor his future will be dented by a Scottish vote for independence. His Prime Ministerial plans – for we all still assume he has such plans – will not suffer if Alex Salmond wins next year’s referendum. They might even benefit from such a result, not least because David Cameron’s reputation – and legacy – will be crippled by a Yes vote. If Scotland votes Yes Cameron will be remembered a 21st century Lord North.

So you might even say Boris’s argument for the Union runs against his own selfish, strategic or political interest. This, frankly, boosts his credibility on the Scottish Question.

And so does the fact that Boris is, well, Boris. He may be a politician, an Englishman and a Tory and these might ordinarily each be considered significant handicaps but Boris is different. He does not do normal but he does do human. He reaches parts uninhabited by other politicians, other Englishmen, other Tories.

His column in today’s Telegraph demonstrates this. Where other leading Tories – such as Theresa May or Philip Hammond – offer chiselling, sneering, snide critiques of Scottish independence, Boris prefers to concentrate upon the bigger picture. This, he recognises, is a struggle for hearts and souls just as much as it is a contest for minds.

Indeed, Boris’s appraisal of the referendum contest is much less childish or clownish than you might imagine. In the first place he concedes the obvious appeal – even the temptation – of independence. He does not think it plainly ridiculous. The unthinkable, he acknowledges, is easily thinkable. This boosts his credibility too.

But rather than chastise Scots for daring to ask the question, Boris suggests love-bombing his North British neighbours. He (hearts) Scotland and will be sorry to see her leave. A divorce, after 300 years of marriage, will inevitably be hard, painful and, however much we might wish it otherwise, bitter.

It might seem, he says, the opportunity for a fresh and exciting new start (perhaps for both parties) but it will still, also, be a matter of regret and even lamentation. How did it really come to this? What went wrong? How was it that we drifted apart so completely that we felt we could no longer share a home? Are our differences really so utterly irreconcilable?

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Of course, Scottish nationalists assert, this is sentimental pap. Well, it is sentimental. But it is not pap.

One of the oddities of the modern Scottish nationalist movement – that is, one of the things that makes it different from other nationalisms – is the manner in which the SNP have stripped emotion from the debate.

The SNP leadership is as far from a flag-waving, See-You-Jimmy-hat-sporting,  whae’s-like-us-shouting, collection of intoxicated romantic nationalists as you could ever hope to find.They are technocrats, not romantics.

Braveheart nationalism exists and so is not quite a figment of the London press’s imagination but it is not the kind of thing for which the SNP leadership has much time. Indeed senior figures within the Yes campaign sometimes despair of it.

There will be a place for emotion next year but it will be a kind of emotional blackmail. What kind of message are you sending about your country if you vote No?Do you really want to be the kind of person who turns down a once in a lifetime opportunity? Are we that timid, that lacking in self-belief, that fushionless? If so, what does that say about us?

Practical concerns about a post-independence future may be real but they are not enough. This referendum is not just a question of currency regulation or optimal pension provision it is also a matter of identity and belonging. Which in turn means that British nationalism – if you wish to consider it such – needs to be about more than accountancy.

If it fails to be – and too often the No campaign seems to fail in this regard – then what, in the end, has been the point of these past 300 years?

True, Boris’s column includes by-now-cliched questions about defence and currency and the EU and sport and the BBC but it is also an appeal to step back from the brink and ask some other questions too. The most pertinent of these being why this divorce is necessary and whether, actually, this marriage might actually be saved? If it is, then perhaps some arrangements will have to change. Perhaps they should have changed before now. But it is not too late for them to change now. Perhaps, he implies, we should pause and think again before we take decisions that, in time, we might have cause to regret.

The sterner breed of Scottish nationalist will scoff at this. Mere piffle, they will say. And, granted, where Boris is concerned, some piffle often lurks. Nevertheless and be that as it may the Mayor of London has a point and it is a point that is based on the premise that Britain has been a good thing, a construction worth defending and one whose appeal is not yet exhausted.

Perhaps it is because Boris is mayor of London that he recognises this. Because London, being the imperial capital, is a British city just as much as it is an English or even, these days, an international city. A place of layered identity comfortable with divided selves that still, somehow, find a way of coalescing into a whole greater than the sum of its constituent parts.

There is talk – fashionable talk, anyway – of London going it alone these days, talk that it is essentially and already a quasi-independent entity leaving the rest of Britain behind. Perhaps, but if London were ever to actually become an independent state (which of course it won’t but the thought exercise is the thing here) it would still lose something even as it set off on its bright and prosperous new adventure. It would lose a connection with its past.

Boris’s argument applies with even greater force to Scotland. The United Kingdom is not something to be tossed away in a fit of disappointment with the actions of any particular or individual government. It is something with an inherent value of its own. That value exists, in part, because it the idea of the United Kingdom has lasted so long and nations, like other institutions, accrue weight and value simply by existing. They are not things to be discarded lightly or even, if you prefer, with great force.

Again, this will not impress the true believers but the certain Yes votes are still in a minority. Boris may be a sentimental old fool and his appeal to reason and decency may seem laughable to some but there are many others who may wonder, as Scotland stands on the brink of departure, whether this is a journey that, deep down, we really want to take.

Sentimental? Sure. Foolish? Not quite or not necessarily. At least Boris, in his inimitable fashion, is making an appeal for Britain. It helps to be wanted, you know.

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Show comments
  • Luke Wright
  • Steven Barr


  • Dougie

    Boris is correct on the fundamental point: this is about emotions, feelings, aspirations, not about economics. There is no doubt Scotland would survive economically. Just as I find all Europhile arguments about how would poor wee Britain manage outside the EU beside the point and vaguely offensive, those in favour of the Union need to make the argument “better together” in a way that explains how the future would be better, not just by dwelling on the short-term practical difficulties of independence.

  • Charlie East-West

    The Scottish Independence debate is a classic case of crystal ball politics.

  • allymax bruce

    The logic is, Westminster continue in their bombastic ‘know better’ vein, telling Scotland, and its peoples, ‘Scots can’t have this, Scots can’t have that’; ‘Scots are too stupid’, ‘Scots are too wee, ‘Scots are too poor’.
    As for us Scots not getting a Sterling zone, then fine! We’ll use our own currency; if we don’t get a part of the Act of Union assets, we don’t take a part of the Act of Union debts. And you can keep all your debts you run-up. It wiz yoos; wisnae us!
    If you can’t play fair, then we won’t play at all!
    So, Alex, that’s why we’re leaving!
    Oh-yeh, the other reasons are that you’re too Class-separist.
    You’re too snobby.
    You’re too 18th century ‘British Empire’.
    You’re too out-of-touch with 21st century modern political reality.
    You’re a political system that relies on your ‘too Colonial’ ethos; you must make others subservient, for you to exist. A’ yer doom-mongering, makes me feel enlivened with a rush of glee, fervour & excitement; Freeeeddommm !
    So, there’s yer logic; up yoors, A’m leaving yer ugly hateful YUK!

    • Dougie

      Leaving aside the obvious fact that it was a Scot who ran up a large proportion of the UK’s debt, what I’m really struggling with is why the Scots would want to leave an arrangement where they have disproportionately large influence at Westminster for one where they will have no influence on their new masters, the European Commission.

  • Hugh

    Surely Cameron will only be remembered as a 21st century Lord North if Scotland is remembered as a 21st century nascent America. Which seems unlikely.

  • Eddie

    I remembering reading somewhere that three quarters of homeless street drunks in London are Scottish or Irish. Send em back perhaps?

    • Jambo25

      I remember reading somewhere that crime rates in England were a fair bit higher than they are in Scotland so why should I listen to a representative of a criminal nation, like you? See how silly this is?

      • Eddie

        Which is an utter non-sequitur, though rather typical of the low quality of debate employed by the Scots nationalists.
        Crime rates higher in England? Maybe because England suffered most ethnic immigration; look at the percentages in prisons who are Muslim (15%), black (30-40%). Scotland has only 4% ethnics and only two big cities (most crime happens in cities). I do not of course expect you to understand such an argument.
        But back to the question – why is it that most street drunks in London are Scottish? Are they drunk before they leave Scotland? Or do they just get a taste for public drunkenness after observing habits of the natives?

        • Jambo25

          I think the give away that I wrote the above to mock your stupid and unpleasant previous remark was the sentence at the end which read, “See how silly this is?”.

      • Joshaw

        Suggest you do your reading somewhere else. In particular, I suggest you do some research into the murder rate in Scotland.

        • Jambo25

          Suggest you look at general crime figures for Scotland which are, indeed, lower than for England.

          • IainRMuir

            So we murder each other in larger numbers (per capita) but, otherwise, we’re more law abiding?

            Not much to crow about, is it? Pretty poor really.

            • Jambo25

              Actually it is as murders have been falling fairly steadily for about 30 years or more. Scotland is about 7th or 8th on the European homicide table. Between 2011 and 2012, for example the total number of murders fell by about 33%. I should point out that the European homicide table does not appear to include a number of states, in Europe, which clearly have homicide rates well above that of Scotland so the real ranking on an ‘all-Europe’ basis would be well down the homicide table from the present 7th or 8th position. By any international standard Scotland is an incredibly safe and law abiding society.

          • Eddie

            Ah but what is the rate amongst white English people? I’d suggest a large percentage of murders are in the socalled ‘black community’ – there is even a police unit to deal with black on black gun and knife crime.
            Scotland is 4% ethnic; England is 16%, and way more than that in London.
            Maybe Scotland should, for once, take its share of the burden eh? Let’s send asylum seekers and illegal immigrants up to you – then you and pro-immigration hypocrites like slimeball Salmond will see what it is to be vibrant and diverse (and stabbed).

  • Two Bob

    A londoncentric etonian? Pull the other one. London is the problem!

  • Alasdair Stirling

    To extend Boris’ metaphor:- Alex Massie sounds just like someone defending a violent husband’s actions to the brutalised wife. This article (and the Boris’ piece in the Telegraph) are the constitutional equivalent of ‘He’s a good man really; he does well by you and the kids; and really he’s sorry that he has hurt you’. The thing is: the husband (whatever his merits) is really only sorry because his punchbag is leaving; and no matter what he promises, if she stays he will hit her again. Sometimes, the only thing to be done is to accept that the marriage is over and start life anew.

    • Flintshire Ian

      Leave if you want to but we will not be having you back when it all goes wrong in your socialist utopia. Nor will you be in a Sterling Zone or the EU (Spain will veto that idea anyway). And you take with you a proportionate share of the debt that your Labour politicians brought upon all of us and of the third world immigrants that your Mr Brown was so keen to let into the UK.

  • Sanctimony

    Alan Massie’s attempt to draw a comparison between the equally wretched leaders of this country: Lord North and Dave Cameron, is ludicrous.

    Lord North struggled to keep a hold on England’s most precious colony in terms of trade and prestige: the United States of America, the jewel in the crown of George III.

    Cameron is trying to tell us that we must not let the parasitic, avaricious, spiteful inhabitants of Scotland be granted their wish to sever their ties with England.

    In losing the American colonies the United Kingdom lost a huge asset.

    In shedding Scotland and the malignant Scots, England can only benefit.

    • ChuckieStane

      Mr. Massie when you read the repeated bile like this don’t you every wonder (i) why you write for a publication with a readership like this (ii) why you bother to defend the union where a (thankfully small) percentage of the the other partner in the union considers you malignant.

    • Jambo25

      Largactil time again sweetie.

  • JonBW

    I’m sure that Boris is not really so calculating and machiavellian, but actually a Scottish ‘No’ vote would advance his prospects enormously.

    If Scotland rejects independence, its votes will almost certainly defeat Cameron in 2015 and install Ed Milliband as PM; the Tories will then look for a new leader and someone on the Party’s liberal wing who has shown he can win elections in london will be the ideal candidate, especially if he is a crowd-pleaser who has made some Eurosceptic noises.

    I don’t doubt for one minute that Boris genuinely supports the Union, but there’s no great sacrifice or risk in his taking this stand.

    Cameron’s opposition to independence, however, flies in the face of political self-interest.

    • terregles2

      The votes of a nation of 5 million can never change the government of a country with over 60 million people. If you look at the voting record in Westminster only once have Scottish votes affetcted the result of the Wesrminster government.

      • JonBW

        There are 59 Scottish seats; that is quite sufficient to determine the result of a general election.

        History is not a reliable guide to the future, because the decline of the Tories (and the rise of the SNP) in Scotland is fairly recent.

        It is very likely on current trends that Scottish voters will put Labour into government in the future even though the Conservatives have a majority in England.

        • terregles2

          Scottish Labour are now discredited in Scotland and will not be voted into Westminster in any great numbers. Every Labour government since the last war would have had a majority in England without Scottish votes. Blair had a majority landslide win with a total of 418 seats tories had 165. He did not need any Scottish votes for his landslide win.

          • JonBW

            Labour would have had fewer seats than the Tories in February 1974 without the Scottish vote; Ted Heath would have been just short of a parliamentary majority (but only because of the Northern Irish MPs). As it was, Harold Wilson became PM.

            Blair’s landslide was unusual (perhaps even unique).

            And the psephological history is less important than the principle.

            • terregles2

              Sorry you did say that Scotland had given the uk the last 2 Labour governments. That is untrue.

              • JonBW

                I don’t think I did… because I know it isn’t true!

  • dalai guevara

    Alex, let’s get this straight, this is what happens when amigos tinker.

    -forever pushing projects like Crossrail through without delay whilst rubbishing regional rail upgrades,

    -forever discussing the estuary (what a red herring) whilst ignoring
    dual hub concepts and existing airport capacity ready for any expansion
    one could possibly wish for,

    -forever subsidising TfL whilst never even sparing a thought of giving
    the regions comparable fully integrated transport options – all this no
    longer resonates with the periphery. We see right through that.

    Well, McCrone was right all along, was he not?
    The regions are beginning to smell the coffee. Decentralisation is the answer and Boris knows it. No matter how he rebrands it, THAT will be the future – the
    harmonisation of England. It is high time this happened, it is high time
    we made this work, let’s get to work, amigos.

  • MichtyMe

    Should the Scots be guided and governed by Boris’s metropolitan elitists, at best ignorant and disinterested or at worst sneeringly hostile . Good government is self government.

  • Chris Hobson

    Vote yes and be done with it

  • sdnfvthtujikui

    The only ones who can save the Union are UKIP, Boris is just another pro EU pro immigration Tory moron

    Please sign and share, blog, tweet, facebook the Daily
    Express petition to stop EU immigration. Over 150,000 have signed.

    Sign here-

  • Dr Lisa Boehm

    This is a worthy exercise in counter-intuitive thinking.

    But it remains stuck at the level of an exercise, I’m afraid. Sometimes there is a reason why a proposition is called counter-intuitive: i.e. it is actually rubbish.

  • laurence

    BoJo would not waste a moment selling his Grandmama to a hedge fund spiv if he thought it politically or economically prudent. Slippery and in thrall to city shysters: the notion that Johnson’s words will affect the vote for independence or for the continuation of the union is, frankly, risible.

  • rtj1211

    What the discussion is about is the fact that the UK has three small nations in it and one very large one. It has one huge capital city in the SE corner of the large country, as far away as theoretically possible from the three small nations.

    Whether right or wrong, at least one of those small nations feels that the big nation rules in its own interests and doesn’t make them feel equal partners.

    They felt that Thatcher shafted them and that their natural resources are controlled by London, rather than by Edinburgh.

    Until the English start talking about their own attitudes in this debate, it’s likely that more will be pushed toward the independence position.

    You can’t be in a Union of unequals, it just doesn’t work.

    • Zeus

      ” UK has three small nations in it and one very large one.”


    • skadhithjassisdottir

      Now I’m not saying I support Celtic independence when the “nationalist” parties support the EU.

      But London does not even serve all of England, and yet the dump is a bloody disgrace. It does not even feel like an English city.

  • asalord

    Johnson is just another British nationalist who can’t see why we are not all obedient little supporters of the union flag.
    He’s entitled to his opinion,indeed he should be encouraged,if only to show the don’t knows in Scotland how little the media in London understands the Scottish political scene.
    Johnson may think he promotes the cuddly side of British nationalism,it’s just proves how blind he is to the evils of British nationalism.

  • James Allen

    “That value exists, in part, because it the idea of the United Kingdom
    has lasted so long and nations, like other institutions, accrue weight
    and value simply by existing.”

    Nice circular argument: ‘It exists because it’s valuable; it’s valuable because it exists.’ Can we find someone with a slightly better grasp of logic to write these columns in future?

  • Jim Fraser

    There being almost no facts that are unassailable (by the other side) in the indyref discussion, I think Alex is right, emotion is going to come into it in quite a big way. And Boris is a character that people do warm to, even the Scots (after all, we’re about the most contrarian folk in these islands.) He should get involved anyway because, regardless of the outcome in 2014, the position of London itself will become a big issue post-referendum. Talk of London being floated like it was some sort of super-privatisation jewel in the crown, merely adds credence to the idea that somehow the British economy is being managed first and foremost around London’s needs.

    • ChuckieStane

      I am afraid BoJo has already made too many ill-judged references to the Scottish Mafia and statements like “I’m making the argument to the Treasury that a pound spent in Croydon is far more of value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde” to be regarded as a likeable buffoon by the Scottish electorate.

    • terregles2

      I am not sure that many Scots have ever warmed to Boris Johnson the famous Bullingdon boy. I think many Scots might agree more with Eddie Mair who interviewed Johnson on the Andrew Marr show and called Boris a nasty piece of work. Interestingly there was not much protest or denial from Boris.

  • ChuckieStane

    It is unlikely that Johnson will have any positive effect on the No vote, I am not sure he has much of a following in Scotland even amongst small and large ‘c’ conservatives. However, his entry into the debate shows that the metropolitan elite are finally realising what is happening. The end of the UK may be nigh with Boris’s beloved union flag a potential museum piece. The referendum is the single most significant demoncratic choice in British history, yet up until now it has been dismissed by the London elites and MSM. Project Fear have fired off all their ordnance before the battle proper has begun and the natives have not crumpled. The more they try to scare the less scary it gets, so now we’re going to be love-bombed. If it is the start of an attempt at positive campaigning by the No camp then it is genuinely to be welcomed. Up until now the fear tactics have been a truly dismal advert for the union.

    • Wessex Man

      It’s not a civil war you know.

      • ChuckieStane

        Yet “project Fear” is Better Together’s own expression. Slam and blow are the standard lexicon and it was Alex that mentioned the love-bombs.

  • Pootles

    Putting on one side the probability that Boris Johnson would be enthusiastic for almost anything that he might think would advance his own cause, if one accepts his boundless enthusiasm for ‘the greatest city on earth’ then he is certainly not the man to maintain the Union. Indeed, he is the enemy of England, never mind Britain, or the UK, as his vision of the future is entirely given over to globalisation. That is why he wants even more mass immigration into what was once our capital city, and measures sucess only in terms of how much money runs through the hands of the City. For him, London is a brand to be sold, and the rest of the UK is, at best, somewhere to pile up the cheap labour.

    • Jambo25

      I couldn’t agree more. I suspect one of the drivers of Scottish nationalism over the past 5 or 6 decades, has been a growing dissatisfaction with central government and a feeling that it is based somewhere increasingly ‘foreign’ which has very different problems and preoccupations from the rest of us. I suspect that feeling is to be found in many parts of England as well. At least Scotland has it’s own representative body while non-London England is caught like a rather large sandwich filling between the London Assembly and the Scottish Government.

      As to Boris, himself. He doesn’t have the media fan club, up here in Scotland, that he seems to have in London based media land. We are either indifferent towards him or see him as just another ‘Tory posh boy’.

      • Wessex Man

        so why has it been all Scots on here apart from me so far then? I don’t need someonwe like you to feel sorry for me, I’m proud to be English and proud of our Capital City – London.

        • Pootles

          Wait a mo – I’m not a Scot. I’m English.

        • Jambo25

          In that case you’re fine and can go on enjoying policies imposed on you by central government which reflect the interests of London rather than your beloved Wessex.

        • Zeus

          London is not English…more indo-africa.

      • Pootles

        Speaking as someone stuck in the ‘rather large sandwich filling’ (like that), I agree. And Boris has no fan base here in west Mercia either.

  • Jambo25

    Utter piffle.

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