Could Ruth Davidson be Boris Johnson’s answer to Nicola Sturgeon?
Nicola Sturgeon isn’t exactly known for her tact and sensitivity, especially when it comes to those who live south of the border. The Prime Minister has just infuriated Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham by banning visitors from entering and leaving his town, apparently without consultation.
A better solution could have been found, he says, if the Scottish government had bothered to contact him during the 24 hours between the decision being made and his announcement on Friday. Burnham accuses the SNP, which often complains about London’s cavalier attitude towards Scotland, of “hypocrisy” by “treating the north of England” with “the same contempt”. Eager to polish his populist credentials, just in case a vacant Labor leadership post arises after another by-election defeat to Batley and Spen next week, he demands compensation from the Scots for those whose vacations were canceled in reason for the travel ban. . Is it possible that the mayor is on the move?
The inconvenience of the Mancunians, however, hardly concerns the Iron Lady of Holyrood. She has bigger fish to whip. Since her re-election last month, Ms. Sturgeon has been preparing her next campaign for independence. So far, its war cries have been unusually suppressed, no doubt because opinion polls have been against the separatist cause. But no one doubts that in due time the SNP leader will raise his level, demanding a new referendum. Never mind that the 2014 plebiscite was supposed to be a “once in a generation” event. For nationalists, the EU referendum changed everything, as the Scots and the English voted differently. And, as the bitter dispute between Alex Salmond and his successor shows, there has been a generational change in the leadership of the SNP anyway. Ms Sturgeon is convinced that she could succeed where Salmond failed.
However, what could the UK government do to prepare for the Braveheart attack of the last days? Tom Newton-Dunn, the former BBC political correspondent who now works for Times Radio, sniffs the air in Westminster and detects new movement to fire a shot through the Caledonian arches. In Time (behind a paying wall) he quotes an anonymous minister flying two kites. The first is to allow some 850,000 Britons of Scottish origin living south of the border to vote in any referendum. The second is to create a new role for Ruth Davidson, allowing her to lead the charge for the Union.
The first of these proposals is open to the obvious objection that in 2014 only British citizens residing in Scotland were allowed to vote. At the time, the Scottish government argued that the United Nations Human Rights Committee “could question the legitimacy of a referendum if the right to vote is not territorial”. The then Advocate General for Scotland, Lord Wallace, considered that “whether or not Scotland should leave the United Kingdom is a question for Scotland”, while Professor Sir John Curtice stressed the precedent of the 1973 Northern Irish border poll, which also stipulated that only residents of the province could vote.
The anonymous minister quoted by Newton-Dunn is either ignorant or indifferent to such constitutional niceties. And it is of course true that the Parliament of Westminster – which should legislate for a referendum – is sovereign. Precedents are important in law, but precedent has emerged since 2014 and could be used to justify extending the franchise to Scots living outside Scotland. In the 2016 EU referendum, all UK citizens living abroad were eligible to vote. What is sauce for the expatriate goose, it is said, is sauce for the gander of the South Scots.
It is doubtful whether this argument can fly in the rarefied world of judicial officers and constitutional experts. How would supporters of the emancipation of Scots outside Scotland counter the objection according to equivalent to rigging the referendum? Transparent motivation, the SNP would claim, is overwhelming evidence that proposed new voters would be much more likely to oppose independence than those living in Scotland. In addition to the charge of gerrymandering, there would be practical difficulties in deciding who was qualified to vote. If Westminster were to override opposition to the move to Holyrood, the SNP would use the issue to bolster support for independence. For the Union, the whole exercise could easily prove to be counterproductive.
It is true that in 2014 many Scots whose work had taken them south of the border felt aggrieved and disenfranchised. A frequent retort of those they left behind was that by leaving Scotland they had already voted – with their feet. If they felt it so strongly, they could always have come back. The question raises real questions about what Scottish identity really means. But in the end, the most important question is: who decides? If Boris Johnson was ready to prorogue Parliament, kick out the remaining Tories and throw North Irish trade unionists under a bus, he might be ready to push through a Scottish referendum bill that would give votes to all Scots , regardless of their residence. Legitimacy is ultimately a function of sovereignty. After Brexit, there is no doubt that the sovereignty of the United Kingdom resides in Westminster.
Whether the Prime Minister would be wise to impose the will of Parliament on Scotland is another question. He should certainly pay attention to the advice north of the border first. That is why the idea of bringing Ruth Davidson into Cabinet as a new constitutional secretary post may well have merit. With Michael Gove focused on the pandemic, there is no Scottish voice in government that carries weight, on the Union or anything else. Ms Davidson has, by her own admission, been concerned about parenthood since stepping down as leader of the Scottish Tories. She was nominated for a peerage but has not yet accepted one. If offered a position with real responsibilities, however, she might be tempted to make a comeback. His brand of conservatism is blatantly in contrast to that of Boris Johnson. Yet they have one thing in common: both are charismatic politicians with a sense of public opinion and a taste for power. Ms Davidson’s presence in government would belie Scot Nat’s accusation that Boris is just a reactionary Tory Sassenach who doesn’t care about Scotland. While the Scots might be reassured, she would dismay the Brexiteers. But Boris, a pragmatist, might see her as the seed of his oyster – and a knock in the eye for Nicola Sturgeon. Look at this space: Ruth’s resurrection could happen.
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