Professor Daniel Wincott is Director of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Governance after Brexit programme, and is Research Director at the UK in a Changing Europe.
‘Project Love’ is Boris Johnson’s new strategy to hold the Union together. He plans to talk up the things the UK government already does in the devolved nations – but also to do, and spend, more in them. Acting confidently in the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to appeal directly to people, over the heads of the devolved governments. To devolved politician,s this strategy may feel more like abrasive centralism than Project Love – the UK government following its EU negotiation playbook to ‘take back control’ domestically.
Putting one over the Scottish National Party or Welsh Labour must be tempting for Johnson. But he should also ask himself whether the objects of Project Love are susceptible to his charms.
UK in a Changing Europe research on ‘Comfortable Leavers’ will make uncomfortable reading for him, most obviously in Scotland. Dig a bit deeper, and we also uncover problems in Wales and England.
Comfortably off Leavers generally share many values, attitudes and expectations right across Britain. They want more investment in public services – the NHS, social care, education and training. expect some disruption.
Hopes for immediate improvement are not high. Rather than itself transforming their lives, Brexit has created the opportunity for a re-set. ‘That’s what I’m hoping that happens as a result of Brexit. Start to invest in our country again’ said one woman from Yorkshire and Humberside. Most want to buy local produce, even if it costs a bit more. They definitively don’t want chlorinated chicken on their supermarket shelves.
Comfortable Leavers are wistful about the loss of large-scale productive industry, and nostalgically optimistic that we might get back to something like those days. Some Comfortable Leavers are concerned about the laziness of their fellow citizens – one women in the West Midlands described the English as ‘feral’, while a woman in Scotland said of the minimum wage kids had learnt to say ‘we’re not working for that’. They want to rebuild the economy around real work, with proper apprenticeships young people. For all these similarities, though, when you dig into their views key differences emerge. They may mean Johnson’s Project Love will seem more offensive than charming.
Though generally opposed to independence, Comfortable Leavers in Scotland identify strongly as Scots. When man said ‘I’m a Scotsman through and through…’ others followed. ‘Yes’, one woman said, and a man agreed ‘Yes, same here’. ‘I’ve always been British; I’ve always been Scottish. I’ve never, ever described myself as European’. As a distinct nation nested within the UK, Scotland is their primary community.
In England, these voters would be natural Conservatives. The group was strongly opposed to independence, but the contrast between Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon was stark. She ‘comes across as being articulate, thoughtful … the likes of Boris Johnson come across as being the opposite’ one woman said. A man replied ‘Yes, I think she’s been head and shoulders above Boris, yes, without a doubt.’
So unappealing was Johnson that he was pushing these voters towards the SNP. ‘A lot of people that I know who voted to stay within the UK will now vote for the SNP’ one woman said. A couple of men articulated a sense of difficult detachment from the UK-wide parties: ‘Would you vote for Conservative or would you vote Labour? I wouldn’t vote for any of them now. It’d be SNP’ one said. ‘Its really impossible’ another replied.
Project Love might go down well with Comfortable Leavers in Wales. They think of devolution as wasting money on an unnecessary extra layer of politicians. Johnson’s strategy could consolidate a core group – but it is unlikely to command a majority in Wales, and will alienate others. By sowing division, he may weaken Labour in Wales but possibly at the cost of achieving the real improvements its supporters hope to see from Brexit.
We found a deep well of national pride in England. It is the place Project Love could do the most unexpected damage. Many felt that, until Brexit, they had been denied the right to expressing this pride.
Dig into what national pride means for Comfortable Leavers, though and we find complexity or even confusion. Several spoke positively about flags – the Union Jack and St George’s Cross – while others though that demonstrative flag-waving was unBritish. Generally, our participants combined English and British identities and symbols seamlessly when talking about their own aspirations.
Sometimes, though, the conversations turned beyond England. That is when problems for Project Love start to emerge. Focusing more attention – and spending – on the devolved nations seems set to alienate his core support in England. A woman in the South West reflected on ‘the situation in Scotland and Wales’. ‘A lot of it doesn’t seem to really fit well. They’re not separate countries, but they sort of a little bit are and that I think just is a bit confusing. Then you’ve got all the financial stuff as well. Who is supporting whom and why? Is that the right way to go?’
‘I think we’ve got a problem within England. … Who’s speaking for England?’ asked a man in the East of England. ‘We’ve got a UK government that supposedly speaks for the UK … there’s 50 odd Scottish MPs all talking about our business’, he explained. ‘Nicola Sturgeon can put forward a Scottish point of view and do something different; the Welsh government can do something different; the Northern Irish government can do something different’. ‘England is the powerhouse of the United Kingdom… and England has no say over what goes on within England.’
Project Love does not look set to win hearts in Scotland and may deepen divisions in Wales. It runs a serious risk of alienating core Conservative support in England. In the past, the majority of people in each part of the UK identified as British. This majority has almost certainly slipped away in Northern Ireland. Across Scotland and Wales today a clear majority of younger people do not identify as British. Without the shared glue of ‘Britishness’ saving the Union is no easy task. In these circumstances, Project Love is not a game Johnson can play to win, at least not once and forever.
Alongside ‘levelling up’ the economy, to save the Union in the longer-term Johnson would need to find a way of rebalancing the UK constitution and its politics. Sharing power much more widely, including with his political opponents would have to replace ‘taking back control’ from devolved governments. Introducing a system of proportional electoral representation for Westminster would be a start. Rebuilding local government across England, with proper financial support, might also help.
There is something to be said for tailoring institutions to particular circumstances. But over the past 25 years the UK government has stitched up devolution and English local government into an incomprehensible patchwork – under Labour as well as the Conservatives. The systematic rethinking of the constitution required seems alien to both Whitehall and Westminster. The question is: how much does Johnson really want to save the Union?