At the end of last month, as the Scottish Parliament was dissolving ahead of the Holyrood election, ministers in Boris Johnson’s government made two announcements related to Scotland and the future integrity of the UK. The first was symbolic: from now on, government buildings across the country (although not in Northern Ireland) would be required to fly the Union flag every day as a “proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us,” the Conservative culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said. The second was procedural: in the coming weeks, lawyers for the Johnson administration planned to challenge the SNP’s attempt to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law.

These announcements were followed by the publication of the Dunlop Review – a report, written by the Tory Lord James Dunlop, looking at strategies for “strengthening” the Union. Johnson should establish a new cabinet position for intergovernmental and constitutional affairs, Dunlop recommended, and there should be “better branding” for Scottish infrastructure projects financed by the UK Treasury. Since taking charge of the Tory Party in 2019, Johnson has launched four separate initiatives aimed at ‘saving’ the Union from the threat of Scottish nationalism. His latest maneuver stalled earlier this year when the head of Downing Street’s ‘Union Unit’, the ex-Vote Leave strategist Oliver ‘Sonic’ Lewis, quit after reportedly briefing against his colleague, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. Lewis had been in post for a grand total of 14 days.

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Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom in July 2019. Since then, he has launched four separate initiatives aimed at ‘saving’ the Union from the threat of Scottish nationalism. The most recent of these, announced on Nov. 18., is intended to “boost the social and cultural case” for Britain following a “series of missteps” by the Conservative leader, according to the Financial Times

On Nov 17., Johnson reportedly told a group of Tory MPs that the transfer of partial legislative powers to Scotland from London in 1999 had been a “disaster north of the border.” His remark was clearly not meant for a Scottish audience: two decades after its creation, the Scottish Parliament remains hugely popular with Scottish voters. Opposition to devolution, on the other hand, is a fringe pursuit.

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At the start of June, when he was still in the running to replace Theresa May as prime minister of the UK and leader of the Conservative Party, Tory politician Michael Gove raised a nightmarish spectre for the British right.

At all costs, Britain must avoid falling into the grip of a “Jeremy Corbyn government propped up by Nicola Sturgeon and the [Scottish nationalists],” he warned. “That would mean Brexit was lost, the future of our Union at risk, and the levers of power handed to a Marxist.”

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An early Autumn morning in Edinburgh, some time in the mid-1990s. Two men are walking together through the Meadows. The sun has cast a dull light across the tree-lined paths. They turn up Middle Meadow Walk, passing Edinburgh University’s George Square campus on one side and the crumbling old Royal Infirmary building on the other. As they approach the junction at Teviot Place, their conversation intensifies. They no longer notice the students, the coffee-sellers or the cyclists. They are speaking, in fluent Italian, about Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. One of the men, dressed in a distinctive tweed hat and cardigan, is Hamish Henderson, the celebrated Scots poet and folklorist. The other, less stylishly attired in a plain shirt and suit jacket, is Tom Nairn, the most influential Scottish political thinker of his generation.

You can see them, can’t you? Two silhouettes in the sunlight. Henderson died in 2002, aged 82, an icon of Scotland’s cultural left. But Nairn is still very much with us, and although, at 84, the years are beginning to pile up on him, he remains as perceptive and self-deprecating as ever.

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For as long as I’ve been aware of books, I’ve been aware of Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain. When I was growing up, there were at least two copies – separate editions: the original from 1977 and a later volume from 1981 with a postscript on Thatcherism – lodged on my dad’s bookshelves. It was the later volume, with its distinctive black and yellow jacket design, that first caught my attention.

As I got older and began to delve into them, I was quietly thrilled to find my dad’s name – Stephen Maxwell – among those cited by Nairn, alongside Gordon Brown and Hamish Henderson, in the acknowledgements. But it wasn’t until my late teens that I really began to engage with – or properly comprehend – their contents.

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