AS I SEE IT: TERRY MURDEN
A week that began with a call for greater leadership from the Prime Minister and a row over his views on devolution ended with two policy statements that he hopes will help define his period in Downing Street, not only as a leader but as a committed unionist.
Boris Johnson set out plans to seize control of the green agenda which will frame all our lives and, without notice, he found £16.5 billion to rebuild Britain’s defences. In both statements there was a message to the four nations of the UK that Westminster was a unifying, not a divisive force.
After being taunted by the Scottish nationalists over his comments that devolution had been a “disaster” the Scottish Government barely uttered a word in response to his announcements on either policy. That’s because it’s difficult to argue against investment in two sectors in which Scotland can be a world leader: it has a major foothold in renewables and a long history and capability in defence manufacturing and technology. On top of that, Mr Johnson is extending his defence policy into the new area of cyber warfare in which Scotland is also positioning itself as a leading player.
The green agenda is one on which all parties largely agree, so the SNP is not likely to challenge investment in hydrogen and wind power. As for defence, Mr Johnson made clear the political message in his plans. In his statement to the Commons, he said: “If there was one policy which strengthens the UK in every possible sense, it is building more ships for the Royal Navy.”
He may like to think of himself as a modern day Churchill but there was a whiff of Harold Wilson in his comments as he spoke of a “renaissance of British shipbuilding across the UK – in Glasgow and Rosyth, Belfast, Appledore and Birkenhead – guaranteeing jobs and illuminating the benefits of the Union in the white light of the arc welder’s torch.”
At last, after years of being sidetracked by Brexit and latterly the pandemic, the Prime Minister was providing a road map, putting flesh on his pledge to “build back better”. As such he has thrown down the gauntlet to the devolved administrations, making it clear that they would be better off working with the union, rather than fighting constant battles against it.
Rightly, they suspect he has little respect for what they have achieved and believe he might curb their powers. The debate on the impact and effectiveness of devolution will now run parallel with all the other constitutional arguments. Armed with the Prime Minister’s poor showing in opinion polls and his “power grab” Internal Market Bill, the Scottish nationalists are building momentum towards an independence referendum.
However, this was the week when Downing Street re-energised the long-neglected case for the union and attempted to reclaim ground lost to the nationalists. Mr Johnson has stamped a Tory patent on the green revolution that he claims will transform British society and the economy, and leaves other parties merely nodding in agreement. On defence he has parked his tanks, almost literally, on Nicola Sturgeon’s lawn. She may not want Trident, but she will not be keen to go to war with the Tories over investment in the Clyde and Rosyth.