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Boris Johnson ‘often only de facto prime minister of England’ says Sunday Times columnist

03 Jan 2021 5 minute read
England’s flag

Boris Johnson is “often only de facto prime minister of England” according to a Sunday Times columnist.

Alex Massie said this was the case “although he is prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and that he leads “increasingly, an English party.”

The Scottish unionist commentator said there was an “English indifference” to the union and that its “internal coherence” has “never been so questioned”.

He also added that the “unthinkable is now thinkable” and that this “even extends to Wales”, and pointed out that support for independence has risen from 22 per cent to 33 per cent, in a year.

Alex Massie said: “In Wales, there is a gathering sense that the constitutional architecture of the UK urgently needs reappraising.

“Having fulfilled his promise to deliver Brexit, Johnson’s attention now shifts to strengthening — or saving — the Union.

“This year marks the centenary of the UK’s current incarnation after the partition of Ireland, but the Union’s internal coherence and stability has never been so questioned.

“Its future is in doubt and this, not Brexit, is the existential question that may yet define Johnson’s ministry.

“Johnson also awarded himself the title ‘minister for the Union’. But 2020 was in large part a year in which the limits of his authority were made plain.

“Although he is prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, he is often only de facto prime minister of England.

“The year of the coronavirus has changed many things and among these should be our understanding of the UK.”



He added: “The unthinkable is now thinkable. That extends even to Wales. In December 2019, a YouGov poll found that 22% of Welsh voters desired independence for Wales; a year later, that figure has risen to 33%.

“In Wales as in Scotland, national identity predicts political preferences: the quarter of the electorate that is ‘Welsh only’ strongly favours greater devolution and overwhelmingly rejected Brexit; those who identify as ‘British’ or ‘English’ voted for Brexit and, if abolition is not an option, wish to sharply reduce the Welsh Assembly’s powers.

“Welsh independence may not be an imminent prospect but, again, the fact that it is being talked about outside the traditional confines of Plaid Cymru conferences is a further indicator that the UK, far from being the placid, settled state of legend, is in a febrile state in which multiple futures may be glimpsed.

He added: “On the first occasion Boris Johnson addressed the British people as prime minister, he reminded them that his job ‘is to be prime minister of the whole United Kingdom’.

“He did so, however, in a way that implied not all parts of the kingdom were equal. ‘It is time we unleashed the productive power, not just of London and the southeast,’ he said, ‘but of every corner of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“Together, the constituent parts of the UK form an ‘awesome foursome’ whose values ‘are incarnated in that red, white and blue flag’.

“Nearly 18 months later, that boosterism increasingly seems misplaced. On May 6, voters in Scotland will elect a new Holyrood parliament that is all but certain to be dominated by pro-independence parties.

“In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein’s demands for a ‘border poll’ on Irish reunification will not go away.”

‘Nationalist revivals’ 

The columnist added that Brexit has put pressure on the union and had “sparked nationalist revivals in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland”.

He said: “Put crudely, Brexit is happening for England and Wales but to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

“The referendum was a vote of the whole UK but the realm’s lopsided nature ensured that, on this occasion, England was the decisive battleground. And what England wants, the UK must get.

“England, naturally, remains the elephant in the kingdom. Although Tories won a quarter of the vote in Scotland and a third of the vote in Wales, they hold only 20 of the 99 Scottish and Welsh constituencies at Westminster.

“It is, increasingly, an English party and its members are increasingly indifferent to the other parts of the country. More than 60% of party members say Brexit is worth the destruction of the UK: a startling finding replicated by surveys of leave voters in England more generally.

“Brexit, then, was a very English revolution. It has sparked nationalist revivals in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland that are, in part, reactions to England’s assertion of its prerogatives.

“But English indifference may be as great a danger to the Union. In focus groups in England, the Union and its future are almost never mentioned. That is supported by polling too: a third of English voters have no opinion on Scottish independence while more than half say they do not care if Northern Ireland leaves the UK.

“Only one in four Tory voters in England say they would be very upset if Scotland became an independent state.”

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