Could Boris Johnson be the UK’s last prime minister?
Johnson’s rise to the top has put the Scottish independence debate firmly back on the British political agenda.
Glasgow, Scotland – He once called for Scots to be barred from becoming British prime minister because “government by a Scot is just not conceivable.” And while editor of The Spectator magazine, he republished a poem by James Michie which called Scottish people “vermin” who should be placed in “ghettos”.
Boris Johnson, who assumed the UK premiership on July 24 following the resignation of Theresa May, will find that Britain’s protracted departure from the European Union (EU) is not the only source of simmering political tension as he begins his new role in the top job.
After Johnson’s election to Conservative Party leader, and before he officially secured the mantle of prime minister, Scotland’s pro-independence first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, reiterated nationalist calls for her UK constituent nation to be given the right to hold a second referendum on Scottish statehood.
“Scotland did not vote for Brexit, or for the current [Conservative] Government – and certainly not for Boris Johnson as prime minister,” said Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) government at the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, to the media. “All of this underlines the need for Scotland to have the right to determine our own future, in line with the democratic wishes of all those who live here.”
In 2014, Scotland voted against leaving the three centuries-old union with England by 55-45 percent, but two years later opted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum, as votes from England and Wales propelled the UK as a whole towards the European exit door.
Prior to his assumption of office last Wednesday, opinion polls indicated that Scots would vote to leave Britain faced with a Johnson premiership.
Boris Johnson moves the independence debate into a completely new phase.
Combined with the prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a deal — which the prime minister has not ruled out and which, say reports, could plunge the country into economic turmoil — Johnson’s rise to the top has put the Scottish independence debate firmly back on the British political agenda.
“Boris Johnson moves the independence debate into a completely new phase, partly because of the implications of his premiership for Brexit, and partly because of who he is,” said prominent pro-Scottish independence blogger, James Kelly, in an interview with Al Jazeera.
The editor of the Scot Goes Pop blog added: “He’s one of the British prime ministers who occasionally come along just to remind the people of Scotland that they really do live in a different country.”
While Johnson’s supporters say he brings unfiltered honesty, flair and authenticity to politics, his detractors say he is a buffoon and, given his Islamophobic comments last year when he described women wearing the full veil as “letterboxes”, an unapologetic racist. Questions have also been raised about his competence for frontline politics, such as his two-year term as foreign secretary under May which saw him make a diplomatic blunder concerning imprisoned Briton Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who remains in an Iranian jail.
But defenders of the four-nation union, which was described by Johnson as the “awesome foursome” in his first speech as prime minister, are urging him to keep Scotland on his radar as he attempts to lead Britain out of the EU by the October 31 deadline.
Such is the concern emanating from unionist circles about Johnson’s impact on Scotland, that the former Scottish prime minister of Britain, Gordon Brown, warned that the privileged, Eton-educated, Leave-voting Englishman — all attributes seen as an anathema to Scottish sensibilities — “could be the UK’s last prime minister”.
“Scots are utterly bewildered as to how people in England, and particularly in the south of England, could ever choose such an obviously unsuitable national leader,” said Kelly of the Conservative Party membership, which voted for Johnson to replace May.
Mark Unsworth, who voted “no” to independence in 2014, largely agrees.
The photographer, based on the island of Islay, off Scotland’s west coast, tells Al Jazeera that the former London mayor’s rise to British premier, together with Brexit, has led him to consider opting for Scottish independence in any future sovereignty poll.
“The pendulum is swinging in my mind,” said the pro-EU owner of Islay Studios, who has clients in the European bloc.
With the SNP advocating for independent Scottish membership of the EU should Scotland secede from the UK in the future, Unsworth said he is minded to back an independent Scottish state inside the EU rather than a UK on the outside.
The 60 year old, originally from England, is unconvinced by Johnson’s willingness to pay heed to Scotland’s needs.
“I don’t think Boris Johnson is a friend of Scotland — or will look after the interests of Scotland as other prime ministers have done in the past,” he said.
‘He needs to listen’
But Scottish party colleagues of the new prime minister are imploring voters in Scotland to give him a chance.
“If you listen to the broad rhetoric from some of the politicians, mostly from the nationalist movement in Scotland, you would get the impression that [Johnson] is going to set fire to himself and the country pretty much [at the outset],” said Ian Duncan, UK government minister for business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) and Northern Ireland.
Duncan believes that Johnson has the best interests of the union.
He told Al Jazeera that “a change in the wind is enough reason for [the SNP to call] for another independence referendum”, let alone the appointment of Johnson to PM.
To keep Scotland on side, Duncan’s advice to his new boss is to listen.
“He needs to listen and respond to concerns — and get a feeling for what’s going on,” he said of Johnson, who has faced past criticism from Ruth Davidson, his party’s leader in Scotland, over his commitment to the union.
With Johnson planning to make a charm offensive visit to Scotland, the Scottish nationalist community senses an opportunity to realise their long-awaited dream, despite large swaths of opposition to their cause.
The SNP’s new online portal for the independence campaign, Yes.scot, has already garnered some 260,000 signatures of a 300,000 target pledging support for independence — and marches in support of Scottish statehood have been taking place right across Scotland. In May, tens of thousands of people took part in a pro-independence parade through Glasgow, which voted “yes” to going it alone back in the 2014 independence poll.
As the new PM begins his tenure promising to abide by the Brexit deadline of Halloween — deal or no-deal — Kelly said it is “likely… that Johnson will find a way of bringing about some form of hard Brexit.
“The SNP will then be able to convincingly say that Brexit Britain with Boris at the helm is a nightmare scenario that Scotland needs to escape from as soon as possible.”