EUROPE is back on the political agenda. Actually, it never left. True, things had gotten a mite surreal, what with the LibDems saying they won’t campaign to rejoin the EU, and Sir Keir Starmer calling on the Tories to “get on with Brexit”. But they didn’t reckon on Boris the Bold.

The Prime Minister has suddenly taken Brexit out of the oven before it even had time to heat up, provoking an entirely avoidable new crisis over the Irish settlement he signed with Brussels only last October.

What has gotten into Boris? Even if he fancied tearing up the hard-won EU Withdrawal Agreement over the Irish border issue, why not wait until after the final trade deal with Europe had been put in place?

After that, he could call the EU’s bluff on the Irish technicalities and park the issue in the courts for a decade. But that is to assume Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is interested in the mechanics of government. Political populists such as Boris don’t operate that way.

On the contrary, the PM leads by bluster, bluff and feigned outrage. Like Trump, Johnson is a true narcissist. His politics are personal, not ideological. Witness his ability to switch political sides or dump close allies or partners, at the drop of a hat. As a result, actual political delivery is not on Johnson’s agenda except in terms of promoting or reinforcing his personal self-image. For Boris, tomorrow’s headlines are more important than today’s actuality. Everything is plastic. Nothing is for real.

READ MORE: George Kerevan: The Yes movement must be wary of George Galloway

The problem with this sort of lazy populism is that it thrives on crude culture wars but breaks down if you face an actual crisis that requires deft management or a leadership style that is unifying and not divisive. Say like a global pandemic or an impending economic catastrophe.

As a result, both Boris and Donald Trump have found themselves spectacularly wrong-footed since the lockdowns began in March. Voters are beginning to see that the populist emperors have no clothes.

Since the spring, the percentage of voters approving of the PM has dropped from 66 to 39. His net approval (positives minus negatives) is a crushing minus 15, versus a stunning plus 50 for Nicola Sturgeon. Months of shifting from one failed coronavirus fix to another has gotten Boris nowhere. The latest wheeze from the fertile imagination of Dominic Cummings – the

£100 billion(!) “Moonshot” project – only provoked guffaws when announced in the Commons. So: Boris has reverted to what he knows best – another EU culture war “to save the Union”.

This should be a grave warning to Scotland. When faced with political trouble of any kind, the PM’s default response is to wave the Union flag, even if the result is to make said crisis even deeper. For, have no doubt, the outcome of reneging on the provisions of the EU withdrawal agreement that guarantee an all-Ireland economy will wreck the Good Friday Agreement, sooner rather than later. Very probably Boris Johnson does not understand the implications of scrapping the Irish deal, any more than he understood the technical details of the Withdrawal Agreement in the first place. But don’t think anyone in the British ruling establishment is going to come to the rescue.

With Boris, we are not dealing with a rational bourgeois politician but with an opportunist populist deliberately hired by the Tories to save their political bacon. The Tories and their hedge fund financial backers will go down with the ship rather than change tactics now.

Which is why the battle over a second Scottish independence referendum is far from cut and dried, despite the polls. If Boris and co are prepared to reopen the Irish border question and threaten the Good Friday Agreement – with all that portends – then they are more than capable of manoeuvring to stall indyref2 till the proverbial cows come home. For Boris the Populist, the Union is not a side issue, it is the front line in his culture wars.

TAKE a closer look at the other red line he has painted in his EU trade negotiations with Michel Barnier: the right of the UK to determine state aid policies without a European veto. In Thatcherite days of yore, it would have been the other way around, with the UK Government trying to prevent EU counties from subsidising their national firms.

But Boris is desperate to spend public cash to save what’s left of the British economy, egged on by his

Del Boy coterie of business cronies who see big contracts in prospect. And by a compliant Chancellor who is only too happy to print hundreds of billions of pound notes because he sees himself as the next PM.

READ MORE: Why would anyone think Free Ports are a good idea?

This is a Tory administration that is prepared to buy political support, or at least to compete directly with the devolved administrations for local influence. Hence the none-too-subtle provisions in the Internal Market Bill which allow UK ministers to spend directly as they like in Scotland, over the head of the elected Scottish Government. The state aid issue with the EU is a side show – the real target is the SNP at Holyrood.

How to respond? The SNP Government is right to array a pro-European and pro-internationalist Scotland against Johnson’s introverted, parochial Little England. However, internationalism does not equate to unquestioning support for current EU institutions or the EU’s economic and diplomatic policies.

My worry is that the SNP leadership is too unquestioning of the EU as presently constituted, and this opens a flank to penetration by Tory populist rhetoric.

To be blunt: the Tories have a point about EU rules limiting state aid. True, neither Germany nor France has had any compunction about flouting said rules when it suited them, to protect their own vital economic interests. But such latitude is not extended to the EU’s smaller economies. An independent Scotland inside the EU – while attempting to rebuild its manufacturing economy and fund a green new deal – might well fall foul of such state aid rules. This is not an abstract question: Scotland’s poor investment record can only be reversed quickly by funding from a state bank.

Which raises the issue of EU membership. Certainly, an independent Scotland needs access to the single market for trade. But that can be accomplished by being a member of Efta (like Norway and Iceland) while keeping a necessary degree of economic autonomy from Brussels.

Also, I remain suspicious that the SNP leadership’s resistance to a separate Scottish currency masks a plan to adopt the Euro in short order. That would place huge restraints on our fiscal and monetary policy, just when we need to rebuild our economy.

My conclusion is that the only way to counter Boris’s populist defence of the Union is to counter with an even bolder, slam dunk plan for a new Scotland. This would include green re-industrialisation, full employment, a Universal Basic Income, free public transport, and higher pensions.

But we can only do that with state intervention and our own currency. And that, folks, means a degree of autonomy which Brussels is likely to reject. Yet in the final instance, surely independence must mean independence.