The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion While Boris Johnson fiddles, my Scottish emigre heart burns

Anti-Brexit protesters in Edinburgh on Wednesday. (Francois Mori/AP)

Elaine Monaghan is a former foreign correspondent for Reuters who teaches journalism at Indiana University’s Media School.

While Boris Johnson fiddles, fluffs and faffs about, threatening to yank Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31 — “Do or die,” he said. "Come what may.” — my Scottish emigre heart burns with terror.

If his threat materializes — and even if it doesn’t — a million people like me may have to watch, voiceless, as their homeland, Scotland, decides for the second time since 2014 whether to remain a part of the United Kingdom. It seems more likely that a referendum conducted now would succeed in approving independence after it lost so narrowly the last time. Who in their right mind would vote to stay in a toxic relationship with Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, which drove us into this quagmire?

We would have to confront the ugly truth that a few powerful men and women in a distant capital can upend realities people have taken for granted for generations. It was little comfort that Johnson lost his one-seat majority on Tuesday, and that his party purged the 21 Tories who refused to bow to his threat. It was just more evidence of the Conservatives’ incompetence.

Perhaps the prime minister and his ilk don’t realize they are threatening the future of a centuries-old union. They didn’t think a referendum on leaving the E.U. would win majority support, only just, and mostly from English voters. We can almost count on them miscalculating again.

It is beyond galling that Johnson has used Brexit as his passport to Downing Street, while I have to wonder whether my kids and I will still get to keep our British passports. The ink has barely dried on my American one, which I received a few months ago after years of patriotic procrastination. A certain president with a Scottish mother forced me off the fence. Never has voting in an election seemed more important, especially since I’ve now lost my right to vote back home after so many years living overseas.

As I fret about the future of my British pension in an independent Scotland, far worse fears have taken hold across the Atlantic.

Johnson’s great gamble has left millions of people in Britain wondering whether they would have enough medicines, fuel and food to get through the chaos that would follow a hard Brexit, which is still on a short menu of possible outcomes.

When did we decide to hand the keys to our democracy to someone so willing to trade the future of so many for his personal ambition? How could we be so blind? There is not a whiff of democracy in the system that allowed fewer than 100,000 Tories to plant Johnson in the position of prime minister. We cannot count on them to do the right thing now.

Long before the 21 Tory rebels found their spines, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, seemed to have less trouble locating hers. What seems like five minutes ago, we were peers at the University of Glasgow. My left-leaning friends and I tended to think of Scottish nationalists as conservatives in disguise — “Tartan Tories,” we called them. Now, Sturgeon is to Britain what German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to Europe. Sturgeon said she’d be willing to do anything to stop Johnson taking Britain out of the E.U. without a negotiated deal, and was even willing to back an opponent, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Still, what if Brexit races ahead, and the reasonable brand of nationalism that prevails in Edinburgh loses its grip?

We Scots like to talk a big game, like we patented the idea of social justice that makes us so proud to welcome the stranger. But will that still stand when we’re all by ourselves? Will a less-friendly kind of Scottish nationalism arise from the rubble of Britain?

Might Brexit, and the accompanying reestablishment of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, be the perfect storm that triggers the violence and shunning and shooting I thought I said goodbye to when, as a journalist, I reported on the signing of Northern Ireland’s peace deal over 20 years ago?

I fear the Scottish nationalists, who seem so grown up and sensible now, won’t really cut it once they’ve divorced their southern cousins and ventured out into a bigger ocean.

What I’d like to say to Johnson, if I could get my hands on him, is that he’s like one of those people sitting in a packed train with his legs asunder, taking up way more room than he needs or deserves. But like every bully and strongman, eventually — please, God — he will wilt.

So, Boris, get your damned foot out of our way. You don’t deserve any more space than anyone else on this train. And get your other damned foot out the way of my kith and kin, especially if they are a soul who has wandered from afar, looking for a safe place to call home.

Read more:

Anne Applebaum: 21 British Conservatives put country over party. Why can’t 21 Republicans do the same?

The Post’s View: Britain is in a lose-lose situation

Megan McArdle: Boris Johnson is presiding over Britain’s stupidest hour

Anne Applebaum: Boris Johnson’s constitutional crisis now resembles America’s