In the years that followed the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, some unionists insisted that the matter had been settled. The SNP lost its majority at the 2016 Holyrood election – as the Scottish Conservatives surged under the leadership of Ruth Davidson – and support for secession remained around its 2014 level (45 per cent). But the Union is perhaps now more fragile than at any time in its 313-year history. Support for Scottish independence has reached its highest-ever sustained level (peaking at 54 per cent) and the SNP is projected to win a comfortable majority at next year’s Holyrood election.
Explanations for this potentially decisive shift are not hard to identify. A year ago, the Conservatives elected Boris Johnson – a politician who could have been created to repel Scottish voters – as their leader. As Prime Minister, he has mostly lived down to expectations and his government is characterised by incompetence and cronyism. His initially glib and complacent response to the Covid-19 pandemic (“we can send coronavirus packing”) had lethal consequences. The UK endured the highest excess death rate of any European country (as of the end of July, 65,000 more people than usual have died this year) and the worst recession of any G7 country. Mr Johnson’s net approval rating among Scottish voters is 100 points below First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
The Scottish government’s handling of the pandemic – and much else – has been far from exemplary. After England and Spain, Scotland recorded the third highest excess death rate in Europe in the first half of 2020. Care homes were left exposed and vulnerable. The SNP Education Secretary, John Swinney, was forced to perform a humiliating U-turn after he defended the downgrading of 25 per cent of predicted exam grades (though this did not prevent his English counterpart, Gavin Williamson, from repeating the error).
But throughout the pandemic, Ms Sturgeon has earned credit for her consistent messaging and diligence. Unlike Mr Johnson, she has continued to appear at regular press briefings. As Alex Niven, the author of the recent book New Model Island, writes in this week’s magazine, in differentiating herself from the Prime Minister, Ms Sturgeon has resembled “the head of an independent nation in waiting”.
To support independence, voters need not believe that the Scottish government is infallible but merely preferable. Yet it would be an error to ascribe this trend to the Covid-19 crisis alone. It was in 2011 that the SNP first won a majority in the Scottish parliament. The subsequent collapse of Scottish Labour, which had long neglected its traditional supporters and under Ed Miliband showed little understanding of the forces driving change in Scotland, removed the main unionist opposition. The SNP has since made itself a truly national party; even a party state: the political wing of the Scottish people.
The Conservatives, in their tacit appeal to English nationalism, have sometimes resembled a mirror image of the SNP. Austerity and Brexit – which Scotland voted decisively against – were imposed with no regard for the country’s special status. Mr Johnson was not elected Conservative leader because party members did not know that he would threaten the Union but because they did not care. A 2019 YouGov poll found that 63 per cent of Tory members were prepared to accept Scottish independence and 59 per cent a united Ireland in return for the UK leaving the EU. Even now, the government shows little interest in the new constitutional settlement that is essential if the Union is to be preserved.
Should the SNP win an overall majority at next year’s Scottish election it will have an unarguable mandate for a second independence referendum. Any refusal by Westminster to grant this request (as seems likely) would merely confirm the impression that it is losing the argument. The imperial British multinational state that once sought to reorder the world appears increasingly incapable of saving itself. Mr Johnson may yet be remembered as the prime minister who presided over the end of not one but two unions.