When Boris Johnson, as editor of the Spectator, published a poem in 2004 calling the Scots a “verminous race” that deserved “comprehensive extermination,” he might not have imagined it could come back to haunt him 15 years later in his first weeks as British prime minister.
“The Scotch — what a verminous race!” begins Friendly Fire by James Michie. “Canny, pushy, chippy, they’re all over the place / Battening off us with false bonhomie / Polluting our stock, undermining our economy.”
The purportedly satirical poem is no longer available on the Spectator’s Web site, but it is remembered with cold fury by some in the fractured, but relatively conservative market town of Inverurie in Aberdeenshire.
“If you’re at the receiving end to being likened to vermin, you’re not impressed,” Rae Jardine, a local Scottish Nationalist party (SNP) member, said with restraint.
Jardine was speaking last week just after an opinion poll showed the first lead for an independent Scotland for more than two years, and shortly before Labour Party shadow chancellor of the exchequer John McDonnell triggered a row by saying his party would allow a second independence referendum north of the border if Labour was in government.
This weekend, thousands of people are expected to join a pro-independence march in Aberdeen.
The city voted 58.6 percent to 41.4 percent against independence in 2014, but some say it is now shifting behind Yes in the face of a no-deal Brexit — opposed by a majority north of the border — and an instinctive antipathy to Johnson.
The prime minister, seen by many as dismissive of Scottish views, was recently described by Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP in the Scottish parliament, as a “recruiting tool” for the independence cause.
Indeed, these twin factors, Johnson and a hard Brexit, could be a tipping point that threatens the very survival of the UK.
In Inverurie, Andrew Jenkins voted No to an independent Scotland in 2014, but is now tilting reluctantly towards Yes.
“I wouldn’t like Brexit and Johnson to change my mind but it may well do,” he said.
If there was a referendum in the next couple of years, “it would certainly be a more difficult choice this time than last time,” he said.
Libbie Allison was too young to take part in the 2014 referendum, but her vote would have been No.
“I felt that Scotland might not be strong enough to be independent,” she said.
Now, aged 19, “I would vote Yes, which is sad because I love Britain. I don’t feel England’s views match with Scotland’s any more. We can still have our shared history and culture, but it feels we have been dragged into something [Brexit] we didn’t vote for,” she said.
Asked what she thought of Johnson, she threw her head back and groaned.
“Oh my God. He has made us look like a joke,” she said.
About 27km northwest of Aberdeen, Inverurie is a quietly prosperous town, cleaving to tradition, resistant to upheaval.
Its population is growing; there are jobs to be had in the dominant industries of agriculture, oil and gas; crime and antisocial behavior are rare; house prices and rents are high, pushed up by demand. The town lies in what has been a Liberal Democrats-Conservative (Tory) marginal constituency.
In the past five years, the public here has gone to the polls six times against the backdrop of an increasingly complex and turbulent political landscape.