Theresa Might’s speech in Stirling on Thursday spoke volumes. It was not the content material that was particularly placing, though there was a lot there that was attention-grabbing, together with a assessment underneath Lord Dunlop of the position of Whitehall departments within the devolved nations. However the reality and timing of the speech signified extra. Mrs Might is enjoying out time in Downing Avenue. For her to dedicate considered one of her final visits to the general public pulpit as prime minister to the significance of the UK union is a major selection. It tells us that she is scared the union is not going to survive underneath her successor.
Mrs Might’s message was that whoever takes over from her may have amongst their “first and biggest duties” the necessity to strengthen the union. This can come as one thing of a shock to Might watchers. Her three years on the helm haven’t been marked by sustained sensitivity to the union, by contemporary initiatives or by persuasive proof that she has any nice feeling for it. Quite the opposite, she has been a centraliser, and the Dunlop assessment – which she says each Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt help – seems designed to assert an even bigger position, involving better spending for Whitehall over Scotland and Wales.
The shortage of engagement has been disabling, each in Northern Eire and Scotland. Within the former, Mrs Might presided over a unbroken interval of political stagnation. For almost all of her premiership, devolved establishments have been in abeyance. There was no sense that she sees restoring them as a precedence. Fairly the reverse. Her pact with the DUP has implied that their view of the union and Brexit can be hers. Her speech in Belfast final 12 months was a low level of her premiership.
With Scotland, Mrs Might has been equally cautious. She made an early go to to Edinburgh in 2016, however she has completed nothing sustained to succeed in out to Scottish issues. Although her speech blamed the SNP for refusing to cooperate, she appeared to determine early on that there was nothing to be gained by working with a resourceful and implacable foe on Brexit. The upshot was not simply that Mrs Might appeared unresponsive but in addition that she was unresponsive. Consequently, the SNP dominates Scotland’s Brexit debate and is again within the driving seat on independence too.
All of this comes again to Brexit. Northern Eire and Scotland are the 2 element elements of the UK that voted to stay within the EU. In each, hostility to Brexit has elevated since 2016. They’re additionally the 2, in contrast to Wales, wherein the union is underneath most speedy stress. The connection is umbilical. Mrs Might tried to ship a Brexit that Northern Eire and Scotland don’t need, did it incompetently, in an more and more excessive kind, and with out addressing Irish or Scottish issues truthfully, or in any respect.
The result’s that Brexit is disabling the Tory celebration in Scotland and threatening to undermine the cohesion and viability of the British state. Few now suppose that the Scottish Tories will enhance on their 2016 and 2017 electoral successes; giant losses are extra seemingly. An early normal election may give the SNP a mandate to demand a second referendum. The narrowing of the polls means that this time Scotland would possibly secede. The influence on the UK could be lasting in each manner. The long run in it of Northern Eire and even Wales would come into query. The thought has UK navy chiefs in mounting panic.
The prospect of Mr Johnson as Mrs Might’s successor implies that Christmas could come early for the SNP. Mr Johnson embodies a inconsiderate, smug and disrespectful Englishness that gives wealthy pickings. It’s onerous to see any manner that he can now keep away from changing into the SNP’s recruiting sergeant. However this isn’t in the end about personalities. This may not all go away if Mr Hunt prevails. That is about Brexit. And it’s about the way in which that an uneven union of 4 very completely different nations has failed to make sure sufficient mutual respect.
Simply as she prepares to depart, Mrs Might has uttered an anguished plea to consider the union. So she ought to. However her last-minute nervousness is fairly wealthy. She ought to have addressed this from the beginning, not on the finish. The injury has been completed on her watch, and on account of her strategy. It might be true that her successor will do much more injury. However Mrs Might’s personal position on this catastrophe can’t be ignored.