RULE Britannia, Britannia waives the rules. And the rule-breaker in chief who came in trying to subvert parliamentary authority in order to “get Brexit” done, and left with a reputation as an endemic liar who was blithe about the sex-pest behaviour of his appointees - has finally caused too much damage to be useful.

Like the vast majority of Scots, I am thoroughly immune to Boris Johnson’s charms. But I am fascinated by the degree to which he did charm his English constituency, on a cross-class basis, by means of his rule-breaking persona. Do we suffer in the indy movement from an excess of orderliness and rule-following? Or does Johnson’s very clownfall confirm that impeccably lawful progress is the only path to take?

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Before we get to that, just a moment to dwell on the phenomenon of a nationally-beloved upper-class prankster. On the supply side, everything in his background conspired to forge his character as a flouter of rules. An education at Eton instils the expectation that you will be making laws, and are thus essentially above being subjected to them.

David Cameron was only lightly chastised for pot-smoking there in the 80s. In 1982, Johnson’s Eton master wrote to this father: “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

The National:

The Bullingdon Club he joined at Oxford wantonly smashed restaurants, “debagged” those of a lower class, and worse. The “plebs” were then paid off. The message conveyed? We can do what we like. As Simon Kuper puts it, “maximum personal freedom” is the ethos of a public-school-educated political Tory.

No doubt this conditioning is helpful if you want to embody a message of “take back control” - Britons make their own rules, not Eurocrats. Yet why did this manifestly privileged, self-consciously shambolic toff carry the two Brexit votes, both “taking back” and “getting done”?

Tom Nairn, as ever, can explain this. Since 1688, when the rising merchant class and the aristocracy did a explicit deal for power, Nairn holds that there has been a deficiency. English society lacked a vigorous and independent bourgeoisie (which existed for all the other modern European national revolutions). When the English middle-class do express themselves, their aspirations reach as much upwards, as well as outwards. They identify with an upper-class as their partners in empire and progress, as much as with fellow citizens in their frustrated agency. (Downton Abbey was only the latest TV version of this centuries-old sensibility).

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Johnson’s swash-buckling persona unearthed this ancient compact (which has been kept alive - or at least undead - by the concept of the “Queen-in-Parliament”, the cross-party consent to the flummery of Black Rod and all that). The exceptionalism that marked Brexit has this early-modern root.

Britannia can waive the rules (global and European), because Britannia believes it forged the basic rules - of law and democracy - in the first place. There’s been something of a comeuppance around this, in Northern Ireland…

The other rule-breaking behaviour that built his coalition was something Johnson shared with Trump: a willingness to voice sexual and racial taboos, providing the undertone for Brexit’s anti-immigration component.

I’ll actually not repeat the worst of his slurs here. But Johnson’s reign generally saw a cranking-up of anti-woke, “culture war” initiatives. Again, he cast the growth of progressive and cosmopolitan norms as an “establishment” for true Brexiteers to rebel against (while hardly a slouch in the cosmo department himself).

Yet like many of the Shakespeare characters he wants to make his next book about, Johnson’s desire for “maximum personal freedom” was his tragic flaw, as well as his leading strategy.

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When a moment requiring genuine collective instincts fell upon him - in the early weeks and months of the Covid epidemic, just after the election victory - Johnson’s bias towards obstreperous liberty was fatal.

It has been estimated that 25,000 lives were lost, as a result of Johnson delaying lockdown until 10 days after the World Health Organisation announced a global pandemic. “That would make Johnson’s delay possibly the deadliest decision in postwar British history”, says Kupar.

And from Cummings’s Durham trip to the unsafe carousing of partygate, from the public money funnelled into his lover Jennifer Arcuri’s business to the undocumented meetings with Russian oligarchs … consistent with his Etonian training, Boris acts as he wishes, and cleverly cultivates a dishevelled charm as he executes his realpolitik. But there’s nothing much charmingly anarchic about appointing a chief whip when you are fully aware of his record for sexual harassment. Or for that matter, dispensing with ethics officers so that you can break ministerial codes with impunity.

From an indy perspective, is there anything other to learn from the demise of Boris Johnson than to be the matter to his anti-matter? As many cheers as you can muster for dour managerialism and punctilious technocracy, heading towards full sovereignty by brow-furrowed increments?

Tough to remember, but much of Alex Salmond’s appeal (past though perhaps not present) was similar to Johnson’s schtick. The public stunts, the quippy humour, the civilisational ambition for his country, the handsy relations. Maybe also, the willingness and arrogance to imagine a whole country would leap with him into the future?

Of course, the current mainstream indy project is entirely about wanting to join, not twist and dismiss, the rules-based order of the European Union—to smoothly mesh with its acquis communitaire, to access its markets, commons and research funds. Many of my pals on the left see this as a de-radicalised Scottish nationalism, surrendering our sovereignty to the meshing wheels of neo-liberal economics.

I’m not sure that entirely washes. European institutions fiscally clamp down on tax-evading US corporate giants, propose continent-wide Green New Deals, and establish new standards that will harness profound new technologies like AI or gene editing for the public good. What is wrong with making a call to be rules-supporters, if these rules are set to produce such humane and constructive outcomes?

I am looking forward to the set of papers on indy being released over the next few months - which will no doubt be oriented towards a Scotland fully functional within a European context, economically, socially, culturally and every other way.

It works for me: I got on this bus with Jim Sillars’ “independence in Europe” slogan in the early 90s, and I still stand by it as a goal.

The National:

What Johnson’s implosion may teach us, however, is the way we should fan the emotional flames of our “interdependent” independence.

Easy to raise a folk devil and rail against it: harder, but more long-lasting, to steadily cooperate and commensurate with important others.

Patient work, sometimes lacking in fireworks. But that feels like the kind of Indy we should try to win – a sunrise rather than a clownfall.

Thanks, Boris, for the timely lesson.