The Conservative result in Hartlepool was an astonishing success and showed that the Tory advance behind Labour’s so-called Red Wall is set to continue.
The victory is also a tribute to the extraordinary ability of the Prime Minister to connect with voters even in the most unexpected places.
But notable as Hartlepool has been, it is dwarfed by yesterday’s fourth election win for the Scottish National Party.
This, too, is remarkable – and in the long run more significant.
Nicola Sturgeon has fallen narrowly short of the outright majority she requires to force through a referendum.
But the demands for yet another vote on Scottish independence are not going away.
And let’s be clear. If Sturgeon does get her referendum, as she well might, and the vote goes her way, this would be a calamity for the United Kingdom and for its Prime Minister.
Britain would be diminished in the eyes of the world. The success of Brexit and the following Election victory of 2019 would be as nothing were the UK to fragment into its component parts.
If Sturgeon (pictured) does get her referendum, as she well might, and the vote goes her way, this would be a calamity for the United Kingdom
If Scotland goes, could Northern Ireland be far behind?
It is not inevitable, of course and, as a proud Scot, I passionately hope it does not come to pass. But the possibility of a breakaway is so real and so damaging that, from now on, this threat demands the Prime Minister’s attention above all else.
In the previous referendum of 2014, independence was rejected largely for economic reasons.
And the questions which were never answered by the SNP then remain unanswered today. England is by far the largest market for Scotland.
We have seen recently the damage that can be caused by erecting even a partial trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. And that would be trivial compared to erecting a full customs border between England and Scotland.
Then there is the little matter – never mentioned by the SNP – of the extra £2,500 public spending per person that Scottish citizens receive compared with the rest of us in the UK. How would this subsidy be replaced in an independent Scotland?
The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies has recently calculated that, within the UK, Scotland runs the equivalent of a fiscal deficit – the difference between what it spends and what it raises in taxes – of at least ten per cent of Gross Domestic Product.
It also stated that the figure would have been more than twice that during the pandemic but for the support of the UK Government and the Bank of England. An independent Scottish government would be forced to finance such a deficit with rises in interest rates and taxes.
The problems don’t end there.
Because the biggest question, and the one over which the SNP got into a terrible muddle last time, is which currency would an independent Scotland use?
If they stuck with the pound, interest rates would be determined by the Bank of England and the Scots would have no say.
If they seriously wanted to join the euro as an alternative, eurozone financial rules mean Scotland would be forced to introduce huge spending cuts to reduce its fiscal deficit.
Remember, Ireland was forced by the European Commission to do exactly that following the 2008 financial crisis, with cuts to welfare and to civil service numbers.
And what about jobs? Independence would lead to a sharp drop in business confidence.
Even the prospect of a referendum – let alone a yes vote – will be highly damaging, not just to Scotland, but to the whole British economy. It would bring uncertainty and delay investment.
The head of the National Westminster Bank, which owns the Royal Bank of Scotland, recently stated that, were Scotland to choose independence, the bank’s HQ would leave Scotland. And that’s because a bank of NatWest’s size is simply too large to be supported by a government of Scotland.
It was not the Scottish Government that bailed out RBS in 2009, after all. It was the Government of the United Kingdom. NatWest’s departure would be followed by that of numerous government offices north of the border, such as those belonging to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and National Savings.
Then there are the orders for warships built on the Clyde and paid out of the UK defence budget. Would Westminster continue to rely on an independent Scotland for its frigates?
These were the arguments that convinced Scottish voters last time around. They ought to convince again. But will they?
Today, young people in Scotland – who can vote when they are just 16 – grow up in a land surrounded by Saltire flags. They hardly ever see a Union Jack, which is banned on public buildings. They watch television channels very different from those in England. They study history books that dwell on distant past struggles against the English.
Boris Johnson visited Hartlepool three times but didn’t go to Scotland once but he will never win this crucial argument if he doesn’t go there himself
They are much more conscious of a Scottish Parliament than the House of Commons. Indeed, Boris Johnson is sometimes referred to as the Prime Minister of England.
The tragedy is that the very creation of the Scottish Parliament – a profound mistake by Tony Blair – gave the SNP a permanent campaigning platform from which every problem could be blamed on Westminster.
Sometimes it appears that facts don’t actually matter north of the border. It’s no longer about economics. It’s all about emotion and identity.
Many of the symbols of Britishness have faded over time, including memories of the war.
It’s no longer acceptable to talk about the positive achievements of the British Empire, in which Scots played such a part.
Campaigns to rewrite a politically correct version of history feed into the carefully cultivated resentment that fuels Scottish nationalism.
So the argument will not be won by logic alone.
We need to inject some emotion and tell our own story of British ideals, of institutions that symbolise the best in our country, such as the Armed Forces, the rule of law, our tolerance. The fact that we are one of the oldest democracies in the world. The fight against the slave trade and – yes, why not? – the lonely fight against fascism by the Armed Forces of these islands.
Westminster politicians need to be less afraid to show their faces in Scotland. During these elections, Boris Johnson visited Hartlepool three times but didn’t go to Scotland once.
It is likely that leading Scottish Conservatives advised him not to. But Boris will never win this crucial argument if he doesn’t go there himself.
How can Scots be expected to believe in Westminster politicians if they never see them?
This is not just about the Prime Minister. It is true of all Cabinet Ministers with UK-wide responsibilities – the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor, the Defence Secretary the Home Secretary, the Work and Pensions Secretary.
All have portfolios which cover Scotland. They should be in Scotland regularly, using Scottish platforms to make announcements.
Their reluctance to engage is dangerous. And seems almost to give the impression they accept defeat – and that an independent Scotland is inevitable.
The Prime Minister has a formidable track record of achievement and is a communicator with no rival. Now he must put his campaigning skills and all his energy into saving the Union.
He will not want to be remembered as the 21st Century version of Lord North – the Prime Minister who lost America.
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