Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom in July 2019. Since then, he has launched four separate initiatives aimed at ‘saving’ the Union from the threat of Scottish nationalism. The most recent of these, announced on Nov. 18., is intended to “boost the social and cultural case” for Britain following a “series of missteps” by the Conservative leader, according to the Financial Times.
On Nov 17., Johnson reportedly told a group of Tory MPs that the transfer of partial legislative powers to Scotland from London in 1999 had been a “disaster north of the border.” His remark was clearly not meant for a Scottish audience: two decades after its creation, the Scottish Parliament remains hugely popular with Scottish voters. Opposition to devolution, on the other hand, is a fringe pursuit.
Increasingly, it seems that the prime minister’s efforts have backfired. “Johnson’s leadership is the [main] factor driving swing voters in Scotland towards independence,” one survey, conducted by POLITICO Europe, concluded in October. “The single biggest threat to the future of the United Kingdom is the prime minister, every time he opens his mouth,” the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, told Johnson over the House of Commons dispatch box earlier this month.
Starmer’s assessment may well be right. For the first time in modern British history, polls show a sustained majority of Scots in favor of leaving the U.K. The Scottish National Party (SNP), meanwhile, looks set for a sweeping victory at Scotland’s devolved elections next May–an outcome that would significantly increase the likelihood of another referendum on the break-up of Britain. This weekend, members of the pro-independence SNP will meet, via socially-distanced video link, for their annual conference, confident in the knowledge that Johnson has become an all-powerful recruiting sergeant for their cause.
Johnson will redouble his defense of the Union in the coming months, as the crucial spring election for the Scottish parliament approaches, by emphasizing the economic benefits of the U.K. and attacking the SNP’s domestic political record. But there’s little reason to believe his next anti-nationalist strategy will be any more effective—or less counter-productive—than the last.
As criticism mounts over Johnson’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the devastating effect of the virus has played a key role in the unraveling of Anglo-Scottish unity. Britain has one of the worst COVID-19 death rates in the world–a consequence, critics say, of the U.K. Conservative administration’s belated embrace of lockdown measures in March. Notably, support for Scottish independence only began moving into majority territory after the onset of the pandemic ten months ago.
Scotland has broadly followed London’s lead in trying to contain the health crisis, and, on a per capita basis, its excess mortality figures are only marginally lower than those of England. Yet SNP chief Nicola Sturgeon–who runs Scotland’s semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh, and has jurisdiction over Scottish health and policing policies–has benefited politically from the prime minister’s botched PR handling of the outbreak. “Johnson has game-show charisma but he’s a poor communicator,” the British writer and journalist Anthony Barnett told me. “Sturgeon is the opposite: she personifies the separate, serious, modest nature of the independence movement.”
This contrast is reflected in Scottish perceptions of the two leaders. 74 percent of Scots think Sturgeon, an assured media performer, has dealt with the COVID-19 crisis well, a poll for the BBC found in mid-November. The figure for Johnson stands at just 19 percent. Johnson’s political toxicity in Scotland predates COVID-19, however, and points to a more entrenched set of divisions. The Conservatives haven’t won a general election in Scotland since the 1950s and the party’s commitment to Brexit, which Scots rejected by a 24-point margin in 2016, suggests that losing streak will continue for the foreseeable future.
James Mitchell, a professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, thinks Johnson’s gilded Old Etonian upbringing and Anglo-centric worldview have profoundly alienated the Scottish electorate, marking the prime minister out as the most polarizing English politician in Scotland since Margaret Thatcher. “He is like Thatcher plus,” Mitchell told me. “He doesn’t understand Scotland. He makes no effort to engage with Scotland.”
Johnson may have led the Conservatives to a historic victory in England at the U.K. general election last December by sweeping up Brexit-backing seats in Labour’s northern English heartlands. But in Scotland, he actually lost ground to the SNP. The arrival of a youthful new Scottish Conservative leader this August, in the form of Moray MP Douglas Ross, has so far failed to reverse the party’s fortunes. After four months in charge, and despite various attempts to differentiate himself from the prime minister, Ross has struggled to make a positive impact on Scottish public opinion. Research published in October revealed that 34 percent of Scots undecided on independence had a “very” or “fairly” negative view of the 37-year old. The remaining 66 percent didn’t feel strongly about him at all.
The SNP is framing next May’s devolved election as, in effect, a referendum on a referendum. If pro-independence parties secure a majority of the Holyrood parliament’s 129 seats, nationalist leaders say, the U.K. government will have no choice but to grant a fresh, legally-binding plebiscite on Scottish secession. Ian Blackford, the SNP’s group leader at Westminster, has even suggested that new a vote could take place by the end of 2021–although this timetable seems optimistic, given’s Downing Street’s explicit opposition to a re-run of the 2014 contest.
Remarkably for a party that has been in power for almost 15 years–the nationalists, then under the leadership of Alex Salmond, secured minority control of Holyrood in 2007–support for the SNP has reached near-record highs. According to YouGov, Sturgeon’s party is currently comfortably ahead in the polls, with a massive 56 percent share of the Scottish Parliamentary constituency vote, compared to the Conservatives at 19 percent and Labour, once a hegemonic force in Scottish politics, trailing in third with just 15 percent.
Professor John Curtice, one of the U.K.’s leading election experts, thinks enthusiasm for the SNP and independence is being driven by deep-seated concerns regarding the Brexit process, which has fueled a steady erosion of Scottish loyalty to the British state. “The pursuit of Brexit has weakened many people’s views of the merits of the Union,” he wrote on Nov.3. “For a significant body of people in Scotland, independence inside the E.U. has now come to look more attractive than being part of a U.K. that is outside the E.U.” Sturgeon seems confident that Scotland’s exit from the U.K. is imminent. The Scots will be independent “sooner rather than later,” she said over the summer. But her path isn’t clear of political obstacles.
In March, Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor as SNP leader and Scottish first minister, was acquitted in an Edinburgh courtroom of multiple charges of sexual misconduct dating back to his time running the Holyrood Parliament. Since then, Salmond and his allies have hinted at the idea that Sturgeon was involved in a conspiracy to discredit her one-time friend and mentor–an allegation Sturgeon denies. “There was no conspiracy” against Salmond, she told the BBC in June. “It’s a heap of nonsense.” Salmond is now thought to be writing a tell-all book about the controversy, which one of his supporters, the veteran nationalist politician Jim Sillars, says will be like a “volcanic eruption” for the party.
The SNP is also grappling difficult questions about the raw economics of self-government. Some commentators think the party’s plan to continue using the British pound after independence, instead of establishing a separate Scottish currency and central bank, will place Scotland’s newly independent national finances under intense strain. Burdened with sizable fiscal and current account deficits, and borrowing heavily in a foreign currency, there’s only so long Scotland would survive outside the U.K., the Scottish journalist Laurie Macfarlane wrote in October. So-called ‘sterlingization’, which would see Scotland’s monetary policy continue to be run from the Bank of England, offers a future of “less sovereignty, not more,” he added. Other observers–including Olli Rehn, the former European Commissioner for Economic Affairs–have argued that Scotland would need to set-up its own monetary authority in order to qualify for re-entry into the European Union, in line with the E.U.’s Maastricht convergence criteria.
There are concerns, too, among left-wing nationalists that the party’s restrictive spending plans might limit space for ambitious social and environmental policies post-independence. In 2018, the SNP published a report indicating that Scotland may face up to ten years of fiscal constraints after leaving the U.K. “Personally, I think they don’t go far enough,” Roza Salih, a prominent Glasgow-based SNP activist, told me. More investment will be needed if, as many on the grassroots left hope, an independent Scotland is going to fund radical initiatives like the Green New Deal, she said.
And yet, the disagreements within Scotland’s independence movement are dwarfed by the wider fractures that now dominate Britain’s political and constitutional landscape. After a decade of Tory rule, the dual crises of COVID-19 and Brexit, coupled with Johnson’s increasingly beleaguered premiership, have turbocharged Scottish hostility towards Westminster, bringing Scotland’s 313-year old union with England closer than ever to the brink of extinction.
“Until recently, the U.S. looked like the West’s most divided and dysfunctional democracy,” the ex-Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, a Scot and fierce opponent of the SNP, wrote in the New Statesman magazine on Nov. 19. “Now, those on the other side of the Atlantic would be excused for pointing the finger in our direction.” The nationalist campaigners convening over the next few days would no doubt agree.
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