Bagehot – Scottish nationalism and the politics of patience | Britain
PATIENCE IS A virtue underrated in politics. The business has always been full of young men and women in a hurry, who run even faster these days thanks to the 24-hour news cycle. Yet many of its giants played a long game. Disraeli did not lead the Conservative Party to victory until he was 69. Big political ideas often take time to mature. Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher both rode to greatness on the back of theories which, a generation before, had been regarded as bonkers.
The best example of the politics of patience is also the issue that has done most to shape modern British politics. The architects of the European Union paid little attention to the ebb and flow of day-to-day politics. They thought in terms of centuries rather than the daily news cycle—hence all those references to Charlemagne and Erasmus—and refused to take “no” for an answer if voters disagreed. The British Eurosceptics, ridiculed for decades by the country’s ruling class, had a similar long-term vision, seeing everything refracted through the European lens. That allowed them to ignore Brexit’s economic consequences. On a five-year time-scale, disrupting firms’ supply-chains matters. On a 500-year scale, it will fade into the mists of history.
The issue that more than any other will define British politics for the rest of Boris Johnson’s premiership, Scottish independence, is similarly dominated by long-termists. The nationalists’ commanding position—they have twice as many seats as the next party in the Scottish Parliament, and are likely to win even more in the next election in May—is the result of decades of unglamorous spade work, and they have displayed the same willingness to endure opprobrium as the Brexiteers. Their founding founders included a fair number of cantankerous cranks. Douglas Young, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in 1942-44, campaigned for the Scots to refuse conscription and was imprisoned for his troubles. The next generation featured ornery types unwilling to bow the knee to the Scottish Labour Party. When Alex Salmond joined the SNP as a student at St Andrews in 1973, he was one of only two local members. (Niche politics has its advantages: he instantly became president and his fellow-nationalist treasurer.)
The past is always present for Scottish nationalists, as it is for Europhiles and Europhobes. At SNP conferences, delegates talk of the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) and the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) as if they were yesterday. Defeat is a temporary setback: a few months after Mr Salmond lost the 2014 independence referendum and resigned as SNP leader, he was back running for a seat in Westminster and flogging a new book, “The Dream Shall Never Die”. The party’s policy on university fees is a fine illustration of its strategic vision: abolishing them was expensive, but has helped preserve a sense of nationhood among the young by encouraging students to go to Scottish rather than English universities. According to a recent poll 67% of the young support independence, compared with 52% of the population as a whole.
The unionists have not, so far, shown a similar tenacity. After focusing on Scotland during the independence referendum and winning, they promptly lost interest. There are signs that this is changing. Policy Exchange, the Conservative Party’s favourite think-tank, is establishing a unit to look at the future of the union. Mr Johnson has appointed himself minister for the union.
On paper the prime minister holds all the cards, for he has the power to deny the nationalists a referendum. But in the game of patience, obduracy is not enough. He cannot secure the long-term future of the union without examining the reasons for the rise of nationalism and the widespread discontent with the over-centralised state. Doing so will require him to give his new portfolio sustained attention.
That may seem like asking too much of a man with a famously short attention-span, but Mr Johnson has more strategic patience than it appears—indeed, he may be a tortoise disguised as a hare. He recognised the European project’s vulnerability as long ago as 1989, as a journalist in Brussels, and exploited his insight all the way to the premiership. He needs to apply the same patience to the Scottish question as he has done to the European one, combining the art of delay with other skills: puncturing nationalist illusions, offering alternatives to the status quo and, given his unpopularity north of the border, working through surrogates.
Brexit demonstrated that the heart trumps the head when it comes to nationalism. Unionists need not just to explain how hard leaving would be, but also to challenge the nationalist account of the union at an emotional and cultural level. The nationalists present it as a takeover which involved the suppression of the Scottish people. The unionists need to persuade the Scots that it was a union of independent countries that benefited both parties, which is closer to the truth. The Scottish did well out of the British empire. Everybody did well out of the intellectual exchange that produced the likes of the Anglo-Scottish John Stuart Mill.
Unionists also need to counter the nationalists’ revolutionary constitutional proposal with innovations of their own. The Scots are not the only Britons who feel marginalised by Westminster: so do many English, Welsh and Northern Irish. Mr Johnson could propose to deal with their many discontents by establishing regional assemblies across England to go along with the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, and devolving more power all round. This would open many cans of worms, concerning the relationship of devolved authorities to each other and to Westminster. But the alternative is a disunited kingdom.
When Joseph Chamberlain called for Home Rule All Round in 1886 to tackle the Irish problem, Lord Birkenhead slapped him down by proclaiming that “We have muddled along tolerably well for ten centuries.” The muddle is no longer tolerable. Mr Johnson needs a long-term vision for a new, improved United Kingdom—and the patience to make it a reality. ■
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Patience wins”