Boris Johnson delivered Brexit. But Johnson still has the biggest fight of his tenure ahead of him: He has to hold the United Kingdom together.
Corona and its economic consequences have not yet been fought, the next showdown is already pending in Great Britain: With the elections in Scotland and Wales in May, a year begins that can decide on the further cohesion of the kingdom. Because everywhere between Scotland and Northern Ireland dissatisfaction with the government in London is growing. And even worse: In many places, identification with the United Kingdom is crumbling. An inventory:
Johnson’s Scotland Problem
At the end of January and almost exactly one year after the implementation of Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a surprise trip to Scotland. In the part of Great Britain where the opposition to leaving the EU and the aversion to the Johnson administration is strongest. He wasn’t welcome.
Scotland’s Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon took no time to meet the uninvited guest and so Johnson did his advertising rounds on his own. His visit was supposed to show that Johnson cares about the Scots’ problems and desires.
Boris Johnson on his visit to Scotland in January at a vaccination center: with his trip he wanted to promote the advantages of the UK. He wasn’t welcome. (Source: Jeff J. Mitchell / Reuters)
But that is exactly what more and more Scots doubt. A main reason for the discontent is the central government in London. Even in the 2016 Brexit vote, a clear majority was in favor of remaining in the EU (62 percent) and has since quarreled with the EU exit. And not just with that. “Scotland did not vote for this Tory government, we did not vote for Brexit and we certainly did not vote for Boris Johnson,” said Scottish National Party (SNP) deputy Keith Brown.
On his Scottish advertising tour, Johnson has also become involved in fighting the coronavirus pandemic for the unity of the kingdom. “The great benefits of working across the UK as a whole have never been more evident than it has been since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Johnson. But only a small part of Scots is satisfied with Johnson’s crisis management in the corona pandemic, as the political scientist John Curtice from the Glasgow University of Strathclyde emphasizes. His adversary Sturgeon received top marks.
Sturgeon takes similar measures to Johnson, but communicates them much more openly, more accurately, more sensitively, faster and more frequently. She has been holding regular briefings since March, so far there have been over 150. Johnson’s press conferences on the corona pandemic are significantly less frequent, are perceived as less empathetic and are often not entirely correct. Johnson had to correct himself more than once after his performances.
Boris Johnson with the Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon: You have completely different opinions on Brexit and the unity of Great Britain. (Source: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images)
In the elections to the Scottish National Parliament in May, polls predict a landslide victory for the SNP, which would also be a settlement with the unloved Johnson. Then the SNP will put forward its demands for a renewed referendum on Scottish independence even more vehemently. Johnson rejects a second referendum. But Sturgeon wants to push through a new referendum in court if necessary. In 2014, a slim majority voted in favor of unity, although Great Britain was still a member of the European Union at the time. According to a survey by “Savanta ComRes” in mid-January, 57 percent of Scots are now in favor of independence.
And this despite the fact that the UK is by far Scotland’s most important trading partner – around four times as important as the EU countries put together. 61 percent of all Scottish exports go to the British domestic market, while 67 percent of all goods imported to Scotland come from England, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Johnson’s Northern Ireland Problem
The situation in Northern Ireland has worsened since the Brexit deal. There are empty shelves in the supermarkets and border controls have been temporarily suspended at the ports due to threats of violence. It is becoming increasingly evident that the trade agreements between the UK and the EU are extremely difficult to implement. According to these, Northern Ireland actually still belongs to the EU internal market and therefore goods transports from the rest of the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland must be controlled in part. As a result, Ireland, which still belongs to the EU, and Northern Ireland, which as part of Great Britain is no longer a member of the EU, are moving closer together.
Empty shelves in a supermarket in Belfast in January. In Northern Ireland, consumers are already feeling the unintended consequences of Brexit a few days after the end of the transition phase. (Source: Liam Mcburney / dpa)
The Northern Irish, who like the Scots rejected Brexit with a majority of 55.8 to 44.2 percent, are not satisfied with the work of the Johnson government and here too people are looking for an alternative to the current situation. As the “Sunday Times” reported, support for reunification with Ireland is growing in Northern Ireland. Surveys on behalf of the newspaper show that the feeling of a British identity is decreasing. The reasons for the discontent are Brexit, the England-centered politics of the government in London and here too the criticism of Johnson’s corona crisis management.
According to this, more people in Northern Ireland currently want to remain members of the United Kingdom than they are in favor of reunification with Ireland (47 to 42 percent). In the age groups under 45 years of age, however, the proponents have a slim majority. A total of 51 percent are calling for a referendum on this. Almost half (48 percent) expect reunification within the next ten years.
Johnson’s Wales problem
Wales has not yet been considered a candidate for leaving the United Kingdom. In the 2016 referendum, the Welsh people voted for Brexit with 52.5 percent. And so there are currently by far the fewest secession plans in Wales. There, according to surveys by “YouGov”, only about one in four (23 percent) is demanding separation from Great Britain. However, the number is significantly higher than it was five years ago. And in Wales, too, criticism of Johnson’s style of government is becoming more and more drastic. Welsh Prime Minister Mark Drakeford last year criticized Johnson as a threat to the country’s cohesion: “The Prime Minister is the one who contributes most to the break-up of the United Kingdom.” The attitude of Johnson’s Conservative government to strong state parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is “hostile and undermining,” Drakeford continued.
Mark Drakeford, the head of government of Wales: He says of Johnson: “The Prime Minister is the one who contributes most to the breakup of the United Kingdom.” (Source: Daniel Leal-Olivas / Reuters)
Drakeford admitted that, unlike Scotland, there were no significant aspirations for independence in Wales. But there is a strong majority that is in favor of strong powers for the regional parliament. If Johnson undermined the promised decentralization, “people will lose confidence that the UK government is a government that has UK prospects that are attractive to people of Wales,” Drakeford said. A new National Assembly will also be elected in Wales in May. It is quite possible that Johnson’s Conservatives will be punished there too.
Johnson’s England problem
In England, Johnson faces a completely different task. In the most populous and economically strongest part of Great Britain, there is growing dissatisfaction that one has to support the weaker parts of the kingdom financially – and is then also constantly criticized because many see England as preferred in the kingdom. In England, too, identification with the United Kingdom is disappearing. Particularly frightening for Johnson is likely to be that less than half of the people in England would be sad about the loss of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
For Johnson this means that he has to use very different arguments to campaign for the unity of the kingdom in all parts of the country in order not to go down in history as the prime minister during whose term the country fell apart.
Johnson’s horror: empty supermarket shelves and rotting fish
To do this, Johnson has to hope for success on two fronts: The British Prime Minister is relying on fast, comprehensive vaccination in the fight against Corona. No country in Europe currently has a higher number of people vaccinated than Great Britain. If this strategy succeeds in returning to a kind of normalcy faster than other countries, Johnson can chalk it up as a success of his policy. His hesitation about the first and second waves of the pandemic should then be quickly forgotten.
Boris Johnson on Downing Street: He desperately needs success, otherwise he could go down in history as the British Prime Minister during whose tenure the country fell apart. (Source: Leon Neal / Reuters)
In addition, Johnson must hope that the economic losses caused by Brexit will be contained. Empty supermarket shelves in parts of Britain and rotting British fish in British ports are likely Johnson’s horror scenarios. Johnson can only hope that as the coronavirus pandemic levels off, the UK economy will pick up. Then he could also sell that as a success of his Brexit policy.
If both succeed, he could go into the next election – which will not take place before 2024 – as the man who delivered Brexit, defeated Corona in Great Britain and saved the kingdom from collapse.
Even if many opponents consider Johnson unsuitable for these tasks, one ability could help him enormously: Johnson is a master of transformation. He has changed from a Brexit skeptic to a Brexit fanatic, from a Corona procrastinator to Europe’s vaccination master. You have to trust him to transform himself from a splitter and polarizer into a great unifier.