After Boris Johnson’s latest breakneck tour of Scotland, a Google search revealed the top question people were asking. “Is Boris Johnson a Catholic or a Protestant?” Only in Scotland.

The technical answer is that he was christened a Catholic but is officially of the Anglican faith. But the Prime Minister is mainly a secular agnostic who doesn’t “do” God. He once compared his faith to radio reception in the Chilterns – “patchy and easily lost”.

Does this matter? Only in terms of the decline and fall of the Conservative faith in Scotland. The Tories used to be the Protestant party, and derived much of their electoral strength from working-class Orange voters in the west of Scotland. Labour built their base partly on thousands of Catholic immigrants from Ireland.

These alignments have little meaning to 21st-century Scots, who have largely abandoned religion except when getting married or buried. But, a century ago, they were real and potent. Orange Protestantism and Tory Britishness were joined at the hip. The Union flag had immense power, not just because it said that Scots were part of the British Empire, but because it had metaphysical meaning. It was a worldview of the here and the hereafter.

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That Union flag inspired thousands of Scots to volunteer to fight for the British Empire in the Great War – more than any other region of the UK. Scotland’s identification with Conservatism lingered into the 1950s. The Tories were still able to win a majority of seats and votes in 1955 – a feat never repeated, not even by the SNP in the 2015 tsunami.

Then it went south – literally and metaphorically. Instead of being near the centre of mainstream Scottish culture, the Tories increasingly became the English party, dominated by a public-school elite who showed little understanding of Scotland and appeared to regard it as a very large sporting estate.

As the British Empire was dismantled, and religion drained from politics, the increasingly secular Scottish working class came to regard Labour as their party. When Margaret Thatcher gave her “Sermon on the Mound” in 1988, trying to equate Conservatism with Christian charity, she was ridiculed.

And so we come to Boris Johnson, who is a pitch-perfect example of all the Tory traits Scots had come to deplore. An overblown public schoolboy with a plummy voice and patrician attitudes. He is, moreover, what many Scots would call a chancer – a man of shallow beliefs and a dedication only to his own advancement.


Scots perhaps don’t loathe Boris in quite the same way as Margaret Thatcher – she destroyed Scottish industry, after all – but that is little consolation. Many probably think Johnson is, or used to be, in his HIGNFY days, quite funny. But, as a prime minister, he doesn’t get to first base: he has no moral claim to their allegiance.

Modern Conservatives appear to believe that Scottish politics is all about cash. Their argument against independence in 2014 was that Scotland would be bankrupted and left poundless. Again, last week, Johnson’s claim was, essentially, that the Scots get a heap of money from the Union, even more after the latest bump, and are coining it in to the tune of around £6 billion extra per year.

What a jackpot? What a payout? Who in their right mind would give that up for a flag? Stick with us and we’ll see you right.

That this leaves Scottish voters cold should have been clear from the 2014 referendum. It wasn’t the Russians who drove the Yes vote to 45% from a low base – it was George Osborne’s diktat on currency: “If Scotland walks away from the Union it walks away from the pound.”

Politics is rarely just about money, as the history of the Union demonstrated. The potency of nationalism is that it gives people something to believe in – their country, their values – which is above mere material issues. Scots used to regard their nation as coterminous with Britain but now, increasingly, they are identifying with Scotland alone, as they were before the 1707 Union.

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This was evident during the pandemic. Johnson is right that the Scottish Government pursued essentially the same strategy, and made the same mistakes, as the UK. But Nicola Sturgeon embodies an idealised Scotland that is more caring and competent than the Pooterish clowns in Westminster. People want to believe that Scotland is better, even when it isn’t.

This is very hard for English politicians like Boris Johnson to get their heads around: it’s not about buying people’s love. Scots historically have been much more willing to be part of the Union when called upon to make sacrifices. This goes right back to the Union Brigades in the Napoleonic Wars. And Scots put identity aside in the cause of fighting fascism in 1939.

But they need to be inspired. Saying that Scotland would be unable, financially, to deal with Covid-19 without English help, which was the subtext of Johnson’s claim last week, sounds offensive to many Scots. There is no reason to believe that Scotland, were it an independent country, would be less able to handle a pandemic than Norway or Slovakia. Size is not everything. Many of the most economically successful countries in the European Union are small nations.

Of course, becoming independent would involve sacrifices and a degree of disruption. There would be hard choices on currency, debt, borders. But there is no reason to suppose Scots would not put up with those if they thought the cause was big enough – just as the working class in northern England back Brexit even though it is likely to be economically damaging to them, at least in the short term.


Better Together’s killer argument in 2014 was that Scotland would begin independence with a large budget deficit. There was argument about the size, but not that it wouldn’t exist. But the pandemic has demonstrated just how flexible public finances are. This Government is, monthly, piling on debt on a scale that, proportionately, dwarfs anything an independent Scotland would have to deal with.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Scots are yet resolved to end the Union. Recent opinion polls may suggest that support for independence is now above 50%, but that could change. The complexities of becoming independent from outside the EU have not been addressed and nor has the prospect of a hard border with England.

It might still be possible to contain Scottish identity within a new Union of equals, were there politicians capable of articulating a vision as compelling as that of empire, Protestantism or anti-fascism. But Johnson’s tunnel vision is Brexit nationalism. This may inspire many in English working-class constituencies but it cuts no mustard in Scotland.

Indeed, his very Brexit mantra, “take back control”, works alarmingly well for the SNP in contemporary Scotland. We are headed for a hard Brexit and mass unemployment as Covid unwinds. Brexiters thought the EU was remote and unsympathetic, and many Scots already believe this about the UK. Johnson can only hope that they don’t borrow his other catchphrase and decide to “get independence done”.