Why Scots think Boris Johnson with his posh-boy tone is deprived

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds crabs caught on the Carvela at Stromness Harbour on July 23 in Stromness, Scotland. Robert Perry / Getty Images
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds crabs caught on the Carvela at Stromness Harbour on July 23 in Stromness, Scotland. Robert Perry / Getty Images

It took an Irishman, the playwright George Bernard Shaw to note that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” The same is also true of Scotland and England.

If you are one of the 7.8 billion people in the world who are not actually Scottish then the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon telling people to “keep the heid” (“keep your head”) probably doesn’t mean much. It’s a folksy expression directed at anyone who is behaving crazily. It means, essentially, “please be sensible.”

And so when Ms Sturgeon used the phrase as she eased coronavirus restrictions, it provoked smiles all over Scotland, and no doubt utter bafflement in England and the rest of the English-speaking world.

Meanwhile in England prime minister Boris Johnson speaks – to Scottish ears – in an antiquated posh-boy tone. He said defeating coronavirus demanded “good British common sense” – as if no other nation has common sense. After surviving coronavirus he claimed he was “as fit as a butcher’s dog,” while notoriously he once referred to Africans as “picaninnies.” Johnson often talks of his policies as “world beating” and “world leading” – claims for which there is no evidence. Then he defies those he calls “the doubters, the doomsayers, the gloomsters.” Boris Johnson speaks as if he has read many 1950s children’s books by Enid Blyton, where everyone has a jolly good time, with lashings of jelly, ice-cream and cake.

LOSSIEMOUTH, SCOTLAND - JULY 23: Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to help himself to a Tunnock's teacake whilst meeting families at the community centre at RAF Lossiemouth, Moray, during a visit to the Highlands and Northern Isles of Scotland on July 23, 2020 in Lossiemouth, Scotland. This week marks one year as U.K. Prime Minister for Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson. Today he is visiting businesses in the Orkney Islands in Scotland to reaffirm his commitment to supporting all parts of the UK through the Coronavirus pandemic. Later he will visit a military base in Moray to thank Military personnel for their service. (Photo by Andrew Milligan - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to help himself to a Tunnock's teacake while meeting families at the community centre at RAF Lossiemouth, Moray, Scotland on July 23. Andrew Milligan/Getty Images

The reason the vastly different language used by Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson is significant is that he celebrated one year as prime minister by visiting Scotland to affirm (again in an odd expression) “the sheer might of the union” of the UK. But Scotland wants to stay in another union – the European Union, and polls suggest a majority of Scots would opt out of the UK to stay in the EU. In Scottish eyes Boris Johnson is almost from a deprived background. As a privileged rich schoolboy from Eton and Oxford he was deprived of normal life. No one in Mr Johnson’s immediate family will have worried about buying children’s school shoes or paying the electricity or gas bills.

Nicola Sturgeon has a humble background, went to Scottish state schools and represents the working class

Mr Johnson’s wealthy father is seeking a French passport (a useful way to avoid the problems caused by Brexit) and slipped away to one of his homes, this one in Greece, for the summer. He also owns a farm on Exmoor and recently sold a house in north London for £4 million (Dh18,857,424).

Nicola Sturgeon has a more humble background. She went to Scottish state schools and Glasgow University. She represents the constituency of Glasgow Southside, a diverse, largely working class area, traditionally associated with shipbuilding. The Johnson-Sturgeon difference in background and vocabulary reflects the hugely different ways in which the Scottish and Westminster governments see the world.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during her visit to the field hospital the NHS Louisa Jordan, set up at the SEC in Glasgow, Scotland on July 27, 2020, where she learned about how the venue, first setup to treat COVID-19 patients, is being adapted for to treat outpatients. / AFP / POOL / Andrew Milligan
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during a visit to a field hospital in Glasgow, Scotland on July 27. Andrew Milligan / AFP

Nicola Sturgeon was more cautious on coronavirus and cut Scotland’s death toll to zero or close to it (it’s a work in progress, obviously.) Scottish scientists said they feared the less successful containment of the virus in England – and Boris Johnson’s mixed messages on rules and guidance – could be a source of future infections north of the border. But the real crunch is yet to come –over Brexit.

Scottish government ministers have taken legal advice over Brexit preparations. Prime Minister Johnson wants the devolved governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to accept common standards set in London for food, the environment and animal welfare. Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party members are furious. Ian Blackford, the SNP leader, at Westminster says the UK government has a “hostile agenda” towards the government in Scotland, and by implication devolved administrations in Northern Ireland and Wales too.

Mr Johnson is equally angry. He claims the SNP wants 70 different legislative powers over these kinds of issues transferred from the EU to Scotland after Brexit in “the biggest single act of devolution in modern memory.” If all this sounds technical, it has real resonance since it affects the food we eat, standards in farms, fertilisers, insecticides, antibiotics and other basic matters.

CARTER BAR, SCOTLAND - JULY 13: A general view at the view point on the A68 at Carter Bar, at the top of Redesdale in the Cheviot Hill on the border between Scotland and England on July 13, 2020 in Carter Bar, Scotland. In a TV interview on Sunday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she could not rule out possible quarantine requirements for visitors from elsewhere in the UK to Scotland, which has gone four days without recording a Covid-19 death. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
The border between Scotland and England, Carter Bar, Scotland. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

And so Boris Johnson’s political tourism to Scotland was fraught with difficulty. Ms Sturgeon recently celebrated her 50th birthday and her friends saw the Johnson visit as a birthday gift for Scottish independence, reminding voters of why the Conservative government is out of touch with the mood north of the border.

Ms Sturgeon tweeted: “One of the key arguments for independence is the ability of Scotland to take our own decisions, rather than having our future decided by politicians we didn’t vote for, taking us down a path we haven’t chosen. His presence highlights that.”

The veteran SNP politician Angus Robertson was equally blunt: “Boris Johnson’s day trip reminds voters in Scotland he is a prime minister … heading a party that hasn’t won an election in Scotland since 1955, delivering Brexit which they oppose. No wonder a majority now supports independence.”

Two countries, joined by history, and sometimes separated by a common language, now also risk being permanently separated by Brexit.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Updated: July 28, 2020 01:20 PM


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