LONDON — The U.K. is under strain and Boris Johnson wants to fix it with love.
The British prime minister will take his usual approach of aggressive optimism, and a heavy splash of cash, to counter the fast-growing pressures that threaten to crack the union apart. Scotland is again threatening to break free from Westminster. Violence — fueled in part by tensions over Brexit — has broken out in Northern Ireland. Even Wales is seeing a surge in nationalist support.
Johnson’s solution: “Project Love” — according to Alister Jack, the U.K.’s secretary of state for Scotland and one of the three territorial ministers interviewed for this article.
Like his counterparts in charge of Westminster’s relations with Wales and Northern Ireland, Jack is aware that he’s taken office at a moment when remaining part of the U.K. could use a little hard selling.
“What we’re doing is strengthening the union; that’s the policy across Whitehall,” Jack said. “We recognize that there are many, many great benefits to our family of nations and maybe we don’t trumpet them enough.”
Though England is de facto ruler in chief, the devolved governments in the other three nations wield power over broad swaths of British life, including health, education and welfare. Johnson’s problem is that the devolved parliaments can, and do, work against Westminster, and then blame London for any failures.
“Devolution can be a rip-roaring success if it’s in the right hands,” said Wales Secretary of State Simon Hart. “And it can be a rip-roaring success if it isn’t hijacked by people who want to pursue a different sort of objective.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the plan to keep the four nations glued together was to convince them of the benefits of the union — and what each one offers the whole. He said the government should be “a bit braver” about talking up those victories, and mentioned the business investment pouring into Northern Ireland as an example.
“Project Love” will be a slow-burn effort requiring Whitehall’s full force to have much hope of working. And, in sharp contrast to the fear campaign that characterized the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and much of 2016’s Brexit fight, it will seek to make an optimistic case for the union, to show people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland what being in the family of nations means to them.
Hart said the public wants to hear Westminster set out the benefits of the union “in a positive way, rather than just sort of slag off the negatives of independence.”
As the U.K. faces what is perhaps the biggest threat to its unity in years, the stakes are very high indeed.
Scotland is surely Johnson’s most immediate worry. Support for independence reached its highest watermark during the pandemic and, after a brief dip, is rising again ahead of next month’s Scottish parliamentary elections. Holyrood’s dominant pro-independence force, the Scottish National Party, is on course to win the contest, with the only question being by how much.
Support for SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s strong coronavirus response appears to be rallying voters. But it’s Brexit, which more than 60 percent of Scots opposed, that’s providing the main nationalist argument. Sturgeon is hoping that by winning an outright majority in the election she will also be able to secure a mandate for a second shot at independence so soon after 2014’s failed vote — and could take her case to the courts if, or rather when, Westminster refuses to give consent for a redo.
Scotland Secretary Jack admitted to growing anxiety over his nation’s status. “Of course, I’m concerned about it,” he said. “I care deeply about it.” But he remained cagey on whether a big SNP win would pry open the door to another referendum. “We believe that constitutional wrangling and division is the wrong route to go down at the moment,” he said.
Support for independence has also risen in Wales — albeit from a far lower start than in Scotland. A poll published in March found 39 percent of respondents backed a break from the U.K., with most citing differing social attitudes to the rest of Britain. Though well short of a majority, nationalist sentiment has been strong enough to raise whispers of the incumbent Labour administration having to form another coalition with pro-independence party Plaid Cymru after the Welsh Assembly elections next month.
Like his Scottish counterpart, Wales Secretary Hart is worried Cardiff could end up at a similar cliff-edge if the Johnson government can’t respond effectively to the nationalist stirrings.
“Although the numbers are quite a long way off where Scotland is, if you look back 20 to 25 years, then you can see the sort of general shift,” he said. “I think that’s what we need to take seriously and, above all, respectfully.”
He added that Westminster needs to up its game: “I think at the moment we’re not making it absolutely clear what we think unionism looks like and why it’s a good thing.”
Meanwhile, Brexit is taking its toll on Northern Ireland, with the new trade border down the Irish Sea — allowing Northern Ireland to remain locked into EU customs union rules — causing business disruption and political upheaval. Some in government are worried that support for moderate unionism is being damaged by the wrangling, threatening the fragile power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland that ended the decades-long Troubles conflict between unionists and nationalists. Violence has erupted in recent days, in part due to the Brexit rows.
Northern Ireland Secretary Lewis has the authority — and under the Good Friday Agreement, the responsibility — to call a referendum on the unification of Ireland if evidence suggests a majority support the nationalist cause.
“There is not at the moment any indication that a border poll is going to be happening any time soon,” however, he said. But concerns are rising that elections to the Northern Irish Assembly next year could become a de facto referendum on the Brexit settlement, and plunge the fractious political balancing act in the nation into turmoil.
The problems across the U.K. have been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic — which has highlighted differences between the British nations.
The devolved governments have ultimate control over health care and, despite attempts to impose complementary restrictions across the U.K., different rules have been enforced in the different nations, adding to tensions with Westminster. That’s made Johnson look more than ever like the prime minister of England alone.
Privately, some in government complain that devolved leaders have used the pandemic to drive a wedge between the nations — one reason why Johnson might have branded devolution a disaster, in comments to Conservative MPs leaked last year.
For Johnson, the answer to dark foreboding is always sunlit uplands. Enter: “Project Love.”
“From a U.K. government point of view, it’s going to be positive and proactive, and about showing more than telling — really demonstrating the value of the U.K. to all its citizens,” said a Conservative Party strategist familiar with the thinking behind the campaign.
The centerpiece of Westminster’s charm offensive will be a plan to replace EU investment cash with a new “shared prosperity fund” managed from London, bypassing the devolved governments. Ministers hope it will become a tool to show the value of the U.K. — giving cash directly to local authorities for specific purposes under the banner of the Union Jack, rather than handing money to national parliaments and letting them take the credit.
It’s a tactic Boris Johnson picked up in — of all places — Brussels. “Before, Europe dealt directly with the Highlands and Islands, for instance,” said Scotland Secretary Jack. “Now, we want the U.K. government to be able to deal directly with local authorities and work with them to deliver on projects that matter most to people.”
Another member of Johnson’s Cabinet complained that under the current scheme, Westminster gets the worst of all worlds: not getting credit for funding the devolved areas, but shouldering the blame when cash runs out. “We’ve got to be smarter about branding the funds we give out and directly reaching over some of these devolved bodies with funding,” the Cabinet member said.
Westminster also wants to promote “growth deals” — amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds of investment for local businesses and projects — and an ongoing transport review of connections between the nations, within which a bridge, physically linking Scotland and Northern Ireland, is under consideration. Low-tax freeports around the U.K. are also planned.
Another Cabinet minister described the economic strategy as “Project Reasonable” — giving out cash where it makes sense and undermining obstructive complaints from the devolved nations.
Johnson’s government will also attempt to talk up other forms of support the nations have enjoyed, including the furlough cash given to people out of work during the pandemic and the vaccine rollout, both of which have been a success story for Britain. “It’s important that [people] recognize there are many things like this that are the strength of the United Kingdom,” said Jack.
What some call a “devolve and forget” culture is also a target of Project Love: the decades-old perception that the three parliaments have been handed cash from the center, then left to their own devices, with Westminster taking little interest in how it’s spent. “You have to do a lot of work to unfreeze the thinking around devolution and evolve it to be more proactive,” said the Conservative strategist familiar with the program.
Wales’ Hart said the mindset was changing, with ministers now applying a “union filter” to all decisions, considering what their impact will be on the other nations and making sure there is a benefit for all. Downing Street will put that mindset center stage, with plans to hold occasional Cabinet meetings in the nations, even Scotland, where Johnson is deeply unpopular.
Similar changes are coming to the bureaucracy of devolution. The government has announced plans to shake up the committee system through which the devolved nations communicate. It is also training civil servants about how devolution works and setting up a new trade and investment office in Edinburgh. Last week it was announced that Sue Gray, a well-respected civil service veteran, was returning to London from a stint in Northern Ireland to take charge of union issues in a top-level role. One official said the seniority of the job showed how seriously Johnson is taking the union.
Unionist foot soldiers
Inevitably, numerous advisers have been conscripted to save the union, as part of a revamp of the central government’s decision-making processes. It didn’t start well. Weeks of wrangling plagued Downing Street’s “union unit” of advisers, after Boris Johnson sacked a top official, whose replacement then up and resigned.
Johnson ultimately ditched the union unit in favor of two top-level Cabinet committees, tasked with considering how government policy affects the nations. Johnson will chair one, with the other led by Cabinet Office boss Michael Gove. But Johnson is not expected to accept the recommendation of a recent independent review and appoint a separate “minister for the union” to work with the three territorial offices. Aides insist that role is held by Johnson himself.
Lord Dunlop, who wrote the independent review, said federal systems around the world showed how better structures could prevent devolution from becoming a grievance platform for nationalists (though he stressed he was no fan of federalism).
“There is always friction between those levels of government,” Dunlop told POLITICO. “The center of the U.K. government and the machinery they have for cooperating with these other governments needs to be a hell of a lot better.”
Outside high-profile structures, an ever-growing army of civil servants is mulling the issue. A “union directorate” is helping make sure each government decision takes into account the glue holding the four nations together. Whitehall is also developing plans to move some administration work out of London, to better serve all corners of the U.K.
Westminster’s personnel decisions make clear that Scotland is considered the most urgent cause. Scotland Secretary Jack has hired two more ex-journalists as media advisers — John Cooper and Tom Peterkin — to serve alongside his current one, Magnus Gardham. All three are veterans of the Scottish political-reporting circuit. The small Scotland office has more media aides than most Cabinet ministers, a sign of the emphasis Downing Street is placing on trying to control the narrative, and a tacit admission that it has failed to do so until now.
“It’s about helping to tell a story about what the U.K. government is doing for people in Scotland,” a Whitehall official said. After years spent years sniffing out newspaper stories in the corridors of the Scottish parliament, Gardham, Cooper and Peterkin will be helping get the government’s message out to their former colleagues as pro-union spinners.
Peterkin is described as having a dry sense of humor with a bumbling, public-school façade that hides a sharp mind — similar to Johnson himself. The former Press and Journal political editor and bagpipe champion used to be heard practicing his fingering in the Holyrood press corridor while waiting for evening stories to drop.
He and Cooper will be based at the new Queen Elizabeth House in Edinburgh — the U.K. government outpost north of the border. Their job will be to get Downing Street spin into the Scottish papers and in front of readers, as well as to rebut SNP claims.
The scale of the challenge is enormous. “The SNP is a brilliant communications outfit, and they have completely dominated the political landscape of Scotland with some extremely competent communications people up here,” said a former Scottish Conservatives official. “What the U.K. government wants to do is make sure it’s at least trying to even out the playing field a little bit.”
Mountain to climb
The three secretaries of state were confident their nations would remain in the union and go from strength to strength in the decades to come. But observers warn that meaningful change is needed — not just gimmicks like flying the Union Jack from government buildings and building literal bridges between the nations.
Dunlop set out the culture change needed in government to make “Project Love” work: “It requires a different mindset, with the government getting out of its defensive foxhole, taking a positive agenda to the devolved administrations and getting them on board.”
David Clegg, editor of Scottish newspaper the Courier, said some of the proposals briefed to the British press hold “a sense of panic and desperation that they are casting around for these crackpot schemes to save the union.” He warned that “no one gimmick or one initiative is going to do that” but that a “complete and wholesale rethinking” about how Westminster works with the devolved administrations is needed.
“The question here, both from gleeful nationalists and quite worried unionists, is whether there is the intellectual capacity — or the understanding at Westminster — to actually deal with this issue,” he said. “Or whether they are just closing their eyes, and hoping it will go away.”
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