Lesley Riddoch: For Boris Johnson, Scotland is just a tartan backdrop

Hotfoot from getting nowhere in Eastern Europe, Boris Johnson continues his “c’mon if you think you’re hard enough” world tour with a visit to Bonnie Scotland this week – emergencies in Ukraine notwithstanding.

You’d wonder why. Apart from highlighting the rift with Scottish “colleagues” and pouring humiliation upon Douglas Ross – strong-armed into conceding Boris a video-link address to the Aberdeen Spring Conference – voters will be slack-jawed with amazement to see that the Prime Minister hasn’t learned anything from the midge-infested Highland holiday, the scuttled exit via the backdoor of Bute House or the more recent political upstaging by the banned Nicola Sturgeon at COP26.

Why won’t he just accept it? The tousled hair, goofy grin and grandiose language just don’t cut it north of the border. Nor does the jangling of beads that impresses the natives down south. If Boris uses his visit here to promise road improvement cash for example, Scots will simply assume the money’s already been announced or deducted from Holyrood’s block-grant. If he decides to reveal Jacob Rees-Mogg’s “Big Brexit Opportunity”, there’ll be none of the worshipful attitude that’s obediently delivered by hacks and voters in Leave England, but derisive snorts of bitter, disbelieving Remain laughter.

If he loses all sense and tries a (third) reincarnation of the Scotland to Northern Ireland bridge/tunnel idea, the PM might actually get physical pelters.

Even belittling The Lightweight ain’t all that smart, since it might finally precipitate a Scottish breakaway or so permanently weaken the Conservative brand north of the border that the party’s trashed in forthcoming Scottish and General Elections.

Still, Boris doesn’t seem to care. In fact, a lack of responsiveness to anyone else’s reality seems part of his British Bulldog charm – in England.

Up here, there’s only one bit of good news. Whilst the PM does indeed personify everything Scotland’s presbyterian culture loves to loathe – elitism, shamelessness and opportunism – his record-breaking unpopularity here is not just a verdict on his posh boy personality.

The Scots pushback against UK Tory leaders considerably predates himself. There was no warm Caledonian embrace for the relatively modest Theresa May nor the slightest vestige of a Scottish bounce for David Cameron – even in his hug-a-hoodie, chum-a-huskie days.

Scotland’s anti-Boris stance is only partly about his personality and a lot more to do with his government’s regressive policies – criminalising refugees, cutting Universal Credit, failing to anticipate gas price hikes or cushion their impact, pushing a hard Brexit that’s caused widespread shortages, losing billions on fraudulent Covid contracts to Tory donors and generally fiddling while Britain burns.

Somehow, while southern voters thrilled over the arrival of this muscular Conservative in 2019, Scots already regarded Johnson as deeply suspect. It didn’t take Covid, parties, Owen Paterson or any other scandal for us to want him out. So Downing Street lockdown parties might not be the main Boris problem for serious-minded Scots, but they are certainly the tin-lid.

Call us old-fashioned. Call us immune to tabloid hysteria. Call us the toughest political audience in the UK. Whatever. Scots don’t like Boris and there’s nothing he can say or do to change that.

Perhaps though this reality is priced in and the PM’s forthcoming jaunt has nothing to do with wooing Scotland and everything to do with entrenching his position back “home”.

Why? Because visiting Scotland proves he isn’t feart, isn’t cowed, refuses to register the collective disapproval of the Scottish nation and won’t permit a no-go zone anywhere in his fiefdom.

Visiting Scotland shows doubting Tory MPs that the old Boris is back – presumptuous, strutting, provocative, unapologetic and completely fearless – after a few shaky weeks of hesitation and self-doubt. And what could better prove that the PM’s got his mojo back, than entering the Lion’s Den, a country so instinctively hostile to him and London control that even its Tory MPs hate him.

The more the PM tackles disloyal Scottish Tories – even if it wrecks their chances in the May elections – the more English Tory MPs love it. Just as they loved Boris announcing the imminent end of Covid regulations without consulting any of the scientists on Sage. Consulting is for wimps. Proper government is about a presidential leader simply asserting his will over everyone else. Not just using Henry VIII powers but embodying the old autocrat.

In short, Boris is coming to Scotland because he can. That’s what power is about for this Tory premier and his swithering MPs. Something to be asserted. Rammed down the throat of opponents – politely if possible. Not something to be shared, negotiated or used behind the scenes to produce a workable solution for the energy crisis, for example.

And who knows. That strategy might work – for a while. There’s no surer sign of the Right rallying behind their man than overwrought parallels with the Second World War. Witness this from The Spectator: “After weeks of sustained bombardment with the most vicious projectiles his enemies can muster, the object of their righteous wrath is withstanding the siege from the Downing Street bunker, even belting out I Will Survive!”

Ridiculously overblown for most Scots, this kind of language cuts muster at Westminster, where negotiation, consultation, apology, caution, collaboration, or inhibiting personal freedom in any way are all perceived as embarrassing signs of weakness.

The Scotland trip lets Boris put all that behind him and get back onto the offensive – after all he’s now guaranteed to antagonise absolutely everyone north of the border except Alister Jack. He’s counting on it.

If the PM can also ridicule Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement of joint working with the Greens on a new independence prospectus – so much the better. With Liz “5 Photos A Day” Truss and Rishi Sunak on endless publicity manoeuvres, the Tory leader needs all the bellicose, top-dog exposure he can get.

Let’s face it – that’s all Scotland means to the Prime Minister now. We are a convenient tartan backdrop. Until we choose to act.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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