A Boris-shaped Future

Boris Johnson’s suggestion that water from the hills and mountains of Wales and Scotland could be engineered to flow to drought-prone regions of England has already made a splash.

The modern Welsh nationalist movement was galvanised by the flooding of Capel Celyn in the Tryweryn Valley to provide water for Liverpool. On YouTube, you can watch the ghostly underwater images of the flooded village.

This latest visionary outpouring from London’s Mayor may well have prompted the Prime Minister to mutter: “There he goes again...”

It was unthinkable that a polymathic pontificator such as Boris would constrain his public utterances to strictly “devolved” subjects. There is only so much that a man who can sing in Greek in the shower could say about bikes, Routemaster buses and union regulations for Tube operators before being overcome by the urge to play with the office fire extinguisher.

Boris has a beady-eyed readiness to comment on issues beyond his immediate responsibilities and it is likely this willingness to step on the toes of Westminster will spread as devolution matures.

If he spies a water shortage on his doorstep and comes up with a pan-UK solution he is not going to censor himself. First ministers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are increasingly aware of how UK Government spending on projects such as the Olympics and defence affect their budgets, and they know that the closure of a passport office or a shift in benefits policy will crank up pressure on local government social services.

SNP leader Alex Salmond’s push for a referendum on independence poses the true possibility of an imminent break-up of the United Kingdom – something which until recently would have been the definition of a Westminster issue.

The UK has become a multipolar country, with first ministers bargaining with Whitehall mandarins and seeking to out-flank cabinet ministers. But this does not mean the UK’s future will be defined by nationalist separatism.

Just as it is (almost) unthinkable that Boris will advocate the secession of London and the founding of an Athenian-style city state, US governors who attack Washington DC as a modern Carthage, the source of vice and moral decay, are considered defenders and reformers and not dismantlers of the union. Without a shred of irony, state politicians who aspire to be president condemn those who dwell in the capital as dilettante tax-spenders.

This creative tension is held up as proof of the vibrancy of American democracy. So if first ministers take on the PM with gusto in the months and years ahead it does not mean that Britain is splintering; rather, this beast is in the throes of evolution.

A Thursday column

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