ANOTHER prime ministerial facepalm. Boris Johnson has an almost Pythonesque ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, about burqas, oven-ready Brexit, taking covid on the chin and now devolution - which he told Tory MPs by a Zoom video call had been “a disaster for Scotland”. Well at least he's honest.

The Prime Minister is one of those people who simply can't open their mouths without saying what they think. He is incapable of confining himself to the boring vacuities and deadening cliches that most senior politicians deploy to avoid courting controversy. They are virtuosos at not saying anything; Boris is a congenital headline-grabber. He has to say something that attracts attention – even if it means telling the truth. I mean, devolution clearly has been a disaster – for the Union and the unionist parties. Look at the opinion polls.

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Mr Johnson says devolution was “Tony Blair's greatest mistake” and you can't help agreeing with him, at least from Mr Johnson's point of view. Devolution was supposed to “kill nationalism stone dead” as the former Shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson put it in in 1995. Instead it killed the Labour Party stone dead – or very nearly. Labour was reduced to one solitary MP in 2015 and is still languishing in third place behind the Tories. The party that dominated Scotland in the 1990s is weak and divided in Holyrood – incapable of mounting a half-decent coup against a failing leader, Richard Leonard.

The Scottish Tories were able to organise a pretty ruthless coup to get rid of their former leader, Jackson Carlaw. But that's small consolation. The Conservatives have been down so long that, to paraphrase The Doors, it looks like up to them. They were in a bad way even before devolution came along. The only party that has ever won a majority of seats and votes in Scotland (in 1955) was wiped out in 1997 in Scotland. They lost all their Scottish MPs, essentially because of their head-in-the-sand opposition to a Scottish Parliament.

Lord Forsyth, when he was the Scottish Secretary, used to say that only around 1000 members of the “chattering classes” really cared about home rule. Then came the 1997 Scottish parliament referendum which showed that three quarters of Scottish voters were chatterers too. That killed the argument stone dead, and any future independence referendum should aim to be as conclusive

The former Tory leadership contender, Murdo Fraser MSP, advised his party to regroup under new name – one that wasn't tainted by association with the “English Party”, as the Conservatives had come to be regarded by many Scots. They could have revived the old Unionist Party from the 1930s, or called themselves “Progressives” as some did in local elections. Or the Peoples' Party. But the moment passed.

What Boris Johnson, in his own inimitable way, has done now is to inadvertently recognise that we are at a similar inflexion point in history. There needs to be radical thinking about the constitution. The status quo is dead. My own view is that Scotland is inexorably on the road to independence and the sooner the rest of the UK realises this the better. Then we can start thinking about new arrangements for reconciling the competing interests and identities on this small island. Call it Independence in the UK, or UK2.

Right on cue, in another spasm of unintentional candour, another former Tory Scottish Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has pointed the way. In a BBC Today interview yesterday, after trying half-heartedly to defend Boris Johnson's remarks, he said that there needs to be a national debate about a “radical form of federalism” which recognises that the nations of the UK are increasingly living apart together. “A new Kingdom of the Four Nations” he called it, “who can enjoy their own national identity but also share fundamental issues like monarchy, currency, armed forces and Britain's international role”.

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This is very radical federalism indeed. I don't know if Sir Malcolm realises it, but this is essentially what was offered in the 2014 referendum, only then it was called independence. The SNP's 2013 White Paper Scotland’s Future called for a new UK in which the Queen would remain head of state, Scotland would retain the pound along with institutions like the BBC, and would continue to cooperate on national defence. Yes, it also argued for Trident to be removed from the Clyde, but in other respects this was a federal, or rather a confederal proposal.

I'm on record as saying that federalism will only happen after Scotland is independent. That is a paradox, but political change often confronts us with contradictions. It seems to me that the only way to reconstruct any kind of co-operative union between Scotland and England, is for Scotland to be recognised as an autonomous, independent country, in control of its economic affairs. Only then could common issues like trade co-operation, defence, currency, foreign affairs be sensibly addressed.

History I believe is moving in this direction, though history is not a one way street. A very substantial number of Scottish voters feel a deep sense of insecurity and real fear about independence. That really has to be recognised and addressed before any repeat referendum can be called. The likelihood is that, if the next referendum is called prematurely, the result might be similar to the Brexit referendum – a nasty culture war and acrimonious deadlock in Scotland's exit negotiations with the old UK.

It might not come to that. The referendum might be deferred until Scotland is functionally independent. Holyrood is already the central focus of public affairs in Scotland – confirmed by Covid. It has been steadily acquiring greater powers despite the current internal market “power grab”. The Scottish Parliament desperately needs borrowing powers and a say on immigration if it is to “build back better” after Covid. Even the PM will realise this.

Who knows, it may eventually be difficult to tell whether Scotland is independent or not. Fake it till you make it, as they say in California. Boris Johnson has helped, as only he can, by telling it like it is. Or as he would put it: dico quod non est simile.

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