Does Scotland really want to leave the UK?

The New York Times, May 2021

For Scots of my generation — millennial and younger — the belief that Scotland would be better off running its own affairs, free from the strictures of Westminster, is almost axiomatic. From the Iraq war to Brexit, the financial crash to austerity, Britain feels trapped in a spiral of crisis and decline. According to a September analysis of recent polls, more than 70 percent of Scots under the age of 35 think Scotland should abandon the United Kingdom. And the abrasive right-wing premiership of Boris Johnson, increasingly mired in accusations of cronyism and sleaze, has only strengthened that view.

At the other end of the spectrum, Scotland’s older, asset-owning classes remain staunchly opposed to a political breakup and the economic instability it might entail. An election this week should show which side has the wind at its back.

On Thursday, Scots voted to elect members of the Scottish Parliament. The ballots are still being counted and the final result won’t be confirmed until this weekend. Throughout the campaign, however, the polls were strikingly consistent: All signs point to a pro-independence majority held either exclusively by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s separatist Scottish National Party or with its ally, the left-leaning Scottish Greens.

The S.N.P. manifesto is clear on holding another referendum on Scottish independence as soon as the “Covid crisis is over” — late 2023 has been suggested. And if Scots have voted for a pro-independence majority, that might seem like an endorsement of that plan. The reality is more complicated.

The S.N.P. has been the largest party in the Scottish Parliament since 2007, and for at least 15 years, independence has been a central obsession of Scottish national life. In 2014, the first independence referendum was held, and Scots chose by a narrow margin to remain part of Britain. But in 2016, they voted in huge numbers against Britain’s departure from the European Union. Post-Brexit, the chaos caused to small exporting businesses and the scenes of food rotting in key European trading ports have further roiled Scotland’s relationship with the rest of Britain.

So what now? The S.N.P., perhaps with the Greens, would hope to secure an agreement from the British government on another referendum, but Mr. Johnson’s Conservative government in London has indicated that the answer to any request will be no.

If Mr. Johnson refuses to grant a fresh vote, and effectively vetoes Scottish self-determination, he would be transforming Britain from a voluntary association based on consent into a compulsory one “based on the force of law,” as Ciaran Martin, who was the constitution director for the British government during the first referendum, warned in a recent paper.

Ms. Sturgeon has ruled out a “wildcat” referendum, like the one held in Catalonia in 2017. Her preference is for a poll that lies beyond legal challenge in the British courts. But she seems to be confident that Mr. Johnson will ultimately buckle under the weight of democratic pressure. “Scotland’s future must, and will, be decided by the people of Scotland,” she wrote in April, and it would be “unsustainable,” she wrote, for the Conservative Party to indefinitely ignore Scottish demands.

A lot of Scots seem to agree with her. Research published last year showed that more than 60 percent of Scottish voters thought the Scottish Parliament, not Westminster, should determine Scotland’s constitutional status. Moreover, the Conservative Party lacks credibility in Scotland. It hasn’t won a general election north of the Anglo-Scottish border — where enthusiasm for postwar social democracy runs deep — since 1955. Mr. Johnson, in particular, is toxic. In January, he told reporters that “wild horses” wouldn’t keep him away from the Scottish campaign trail. He never made it beyond Hartlepool.

Scots, then, want to decide for themselves. But it doesn’t follow that they want to secede from Britain overnight.

The electorate is coming out of two referendums in quick succession, in 2014 and 2016, and four years of Brexit negotiations. Support for independence was consistently above 50 percent during most of the pandemic, largely thanks to the contrast between Ms. Sturgeon’s able handling and the bungled response by the British government. But the success of the British vaccination program, coupled with a bitter political row between Ms. Sturgeon and her predecessor as leader of the S.N.P., Alex Salmond, has eliminated that lead.

A poll this month asked the Scottish electorate if and when they thought another independence referendum should be held. Excluding those who answered “don’t know,” 33 percent said within two years, 30 percent said never, and the rest answered either 5 or 10 years’ time. The majority might, at least for the moment, prefer a break from the negotiating and campaigning that has dominated Scottish and British politics for years. Ms. Sturgeon, a formidable politician, realizes that much of the S.N.P.’s popularity reflects its image as a competent manager of Scotland’s devolved institutions, and in the latter weeks of campaigning, she tempered her independence messaging.

But sooner or later the answer to whether Scotland should be an independent country is probably going to be yes. Demographic trends, the S.N.P.’s electoral dominance of the Scottish Parliament and the depth of Scotland’s antipathy toward the British Conservative Party all place huge, long-term strains on the union’s constitutional architecture.

On its own, this election result cannot deliver a mandate for separating Scotland from Britain. Yet, assuming a new pro-independence majority takes shape at the Scottish Parliament next week, 2021 will go down as another significant milestone in the post-Brexit disintegration of the British state. And if Mr. Johnson pursues his strategy of denial, that will be viewed by many here as an admission of defeat.

The fastest and most effective way of driving undecided Scots away from the union is to tell them, in no uncertain terms, that they are never allowed to leave. Ms. Sturgeon understands this. Mr. Johnson, whose main concern is not becoming the last prime minister of the United Kingdom, wants to wait and see.

Read the original piece here.

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