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Has Boris Johnson been using Nicola Sturgeon as a political scapegoat during COP26?

Was it a good COP or a bad COP? It’s hard to tell among all the spin, bluff, and bluster. Instead, a better question is: who’s COP is it, anyway?

Hosting the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow was always going to produce some difficult questions. Is it Westminster or Holyrood that is ultimately responsible for its affairs? Who gets a seat at the negotiating table? Is Scotland or Great Britain officially recognised as the host? I could go on.

Scotland’s place as a devolved nation marks the start of the COP confusions; since there is no such thing as an English Parliament, devolution would not impact the implementation of a COP26 held in somewhere like Birmingham to the extent that it does here. Further complications arise because the parties governing Westminster and Holyrood are not ideological bedfellows. Their leaders, Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon, are constantly engaged in a sustained power struggle over Scotland’s position in the UK. It’s inevitable, then, that an event as politically significant as COP26 would lead to political point-scoring. The complexities of devolution create the perfect conditions for a never-ending blame game.

"It’s inevitable, then, that an event as politically significant as COP26 would lead to political point-scoring."

It seems that Boris Johnson’s strategy to “win” COP26 was to simply deny Nicola Sturgeon any responsibility at all. Scotland does not have a place at the negotiating table, despite the particular challenges faced by the North-East of the country in securing a just transition. The position, then, is that the country hosting the conference does not have any formal representation at the conference. Morality would therefore dictate that the UK government declare full responsibility for the happenings of COP26. This is politics, though: that’s just not how things work.

The most likely scenario, if COP26 is to be described a failure, is Boris Johnson using Nicola Sturgeon as a political scapegoat. Truthfully, it happens to women in leadership fairly often. A recent example is the Labour Party, who had relentless briefings from Keir Starmer’s office against the now former Shadow Chancellor for failing to communicate a leader’s message which quite literally did not exist.

In fact, Sturgeon recently accused Johnson of having a “fragile male ego”. Such a statement is actually a departure from the usual comings and goings of the leaders’ interpersonal relations: Johnson will occasionally spout something cretinous, while Sturgeon will occasionally offer something conciliatory. This usually results in Johnson’s reversion to an even more oafish unionism, and so Sturgeon appears the more mature leader.

"In fact, Sturgeon recently accused Johnson of having a 'fragile male ego'."

However, Sturgeon will likely become a political scapegoat because the personal power struggle would not exist without the political power struggle. In Scottish politics, the ideologies of nationalism and unionism are both ultimately concerned with the concentration of power, and should there be a second referendum only one can triumph at the ballot box. 

Therefore, the political battle over COP26 is really a battle over the constitution. Boris Johnson needs COP26 to be a success because he has to show that Brexit Britain is a success; otherwise, his projections of a global superpower once again asserting supremacy will just be an embarrassment. Sturgeon, too, would like COP26 to be a success, because her country is hosting the conference, and positive press would put her struggle for independence on the map.

The difference, however, is that Sturgeon does not need COP26 to be a success, since Johnson has abdicated her of any responsibility. She can instead have a jolly good time, uploading pictures of herself with world leaders and young environmental activists, while the PM is captured near-asleep.

"The difference, however, is that Sturgeon does not need COP26 to be a success, since Johnson has abdicated her of any responsibility."

Johnson has blown it. He could’ve promoted the benefits of the union through liaising constructively with the devolved administrations - then he could claim that the conference was more effective as a result of them working closely together. Now, the only way Johnson can win the constitutional conflict is to blame Sturgeon retrospectively for a conference he wanted her to stay away from.

So when Johnson scapegoats Sturgeon, she can scapegoat devolution as not working for Scotland. I can already imagine the rhetoric: “Scotland has the glory of hosting COP26, but we’ve been prevented from doing climate justice our way, and now we’re being blamed for this?” Even if COP26 is considered by some to be a success, even if Johnson thinks he has been afforded some political reprieve, he has further soured his already troublesome relationship with the Scottish government. Sturgeon could publicly question what all the antagonism was for, and whether it was because Johnson is afraid of her.

Maybe the outcome of COP26 doesn’t even matter for their political power struggle. We’ve already seen the headline. It’s not Sturgeon the scapegoat, but Sturgeon as the leader of a “nation in waiting”. Well done, Boris.


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