The risk of the United Kingdom breaking up is the greatest it has been for generations, according to former senior UK minister David Lidington, who warned that “it’s not going to be easy” to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom.
Lidington, who held several ministerial positions and was de facto deputy prime minister to Theresa May before quitting elected politics last year, said: “My view is the union is at greater risk now than at any point in my lifetime.”
In an interview with Business Insider this week, Lidington, who oversaw Brexit preparations during May’s time in office, said Boris Johnson’s government faced a “battle” in preserving the UK amid growing support for independence in Scotland.
Recent opinion polls in Scotland have shown increasing support for both independence and Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Johnson is a distinctly unpopular figure north of the border, with a YouGov poll conducted last week giving him a personal rating of -51 among Scottish voters.
Lidington described recent opinion polls as a “worrying snapshot, especially when you see support for independence growing among the younger age group.”
The UK government has sought to turn the tide by sending four Cabinet ministers to Scotland in the last two weeks, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the most popular UK minister in Scotland, according to YouGov, visiting on Friday.
Lidington said that while he was “delighted” to see ministers visiting Scotland, he’d like to “get to a situation where it was seen as perfectly normal for minsters to go to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland any day of the week,” and urged ministers in Johnson’s government to “act and speak in a way that shows acting for and respect all parts of the UK.”
“I’ve felt for a long time that the problem that is as much English indifference to the value of the union than it is nationalism,” he said.
He also warned that Northern Ireland’s place in the UK could become more precarious if Johnson’s government failed to prepare the province for major changes brought about by leaving the Brexit transition period at the end of the year.
The UK government on Friday revealed support for Northern Irish businesses worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, including a service that will handle new customs declarations for thousands of importers from January.
“I’m pleased that the government has come forward with more detail but if you listen to what Northern Irish business groups are saying, there needs to be a lot more done as they need time to prepare for all of this,” he said.
Lidington, who served as the UK’s minister for Europe under ex-prime minister David Cameron, said the issues facing Northern Irish businesses could be resolved “with lots of hard, detailed work,” but warned that preparing firms for a new trading relationship with Great Britain would also require time, “which of course we don’t have.”
“COVID is absorbing so much government time and energy at the moment and there is a real lack of time,” he said.
Lidington accuses some Conservative MPs of ‘knee jerk’ reactions to China
Lidington recently became chairman of The Royal United Services Institute, the UK’s leading defense and security think-tank. He told Business Insider that it was an “irresistible opportunity” given his strong interest in foreign affairs.
He has taken on the role at a time of significant geopolitical challenge to the UK, with China’s growing power a major talking point and a recent report warning that Britain was a key target for Russian interference and illicit money.
On China, Lidington said that while the UK and its allies were right to stand up to Beijing over its actions in Hong Kong and suppression of Uighurs, the UK has to be “clear-sighted and hard-headed” and “find a way to maintain relationships” with President Xi Jinping.
“I agree with those who say that democracies need to work together more effectively to stand up for the liberal democratic model that China is increasingly challenging. It’s important for there to be an alliance of democracies.
“But I don’t think it’s sensible or realistic to think that you can somehow lockout a quarter of humanity from world-systems … One cannot pretend that this civilization does not exist and isn’t going to be one of, if not the most, dominant of this century,” he said.
He said there had to be thought-out, multilateral strategy for pressuring China and criticized a group of backbench Conservative MPs who he said were making “knee jerk” demands of the UK government.
“What I get impatient with are people who call for something to be done or a stronger line to be taken without actually saying what it is they propose, or without thinking through the most element, which is more coordinated working among western democracies,” he said.
“That applies to some of the backbench commentary on this.
“Not all. People like Tom Tugendhat [foreign affairs select committee chair] have thought about deeply about this. But some of the stuff you heard was knee jerk. You need to think these things through.”
He said that the growing call for the UK to remove China from its nuclear energy, led by Conservative MPs like former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, would not “actually achieve anything” based on the current evidence.
“Is there really technology that they [China] would be able to acquire that would not be able to otherwise? Once it’s there, you can nationalize and regulate it, as you do with all energy sectors. So what is it that people are fearing?
“It’s a case of trying to find things to do without thinking about whether it would actually make the UK stronger and whether it would change the behavior of Chinese leaders.”