The Holyrood election in May is the most significant in the more than 20-year history of devolution and among the most freighted democratic events of the nearly 314-year-old Union between Scotland and England. Current polls suggest the SNP will secure a majority, with a mandate for a second independence referendum, putting Scotland on a path to exit from the UK and creating the conditions for years of rancour and dispute between Edinburgh and London. The end of Britain, if it comes, looks like it will be less a velvet divorce and more a season finale of Dallas – messy and hysterical, a vicious and bitter fight for the spoils.
Unionists across the political parties share a pessimistic view of the odds. As yet – so late in the day – there is no strategy or leadership, no grip or vision. “This is a message for Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak,” says Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP and law professor. “If we carry on like this, the country will split up. And we’re running out of time.”
Whether overwhelmed by Covid, distracted by Brexit, or simply weary of the restless natives north of the border, Westminster could lose Scotland through inattention and ennui as much as through the drive of the SNP. As the former Tory chancellor George Osborne wrote recently in the Evening Standard, the UK is on course to “become another historically interesting case study in how successful nations can perform unexpected acts of national suicide”.
But while the clock is ticking, it has not yet run out. There is still another possible outcome: that the independence movement fails to win a majority in May, which would mean no second referendum, the likely fall of Nicola Sturgeon, and independence potentially losing its central totemic power in Scottish politics for at least a generation. That, despite the current momentum, is not unthinkable. But it requires unionists to get their act together, and fast.
If Scotland’s future comes down to a straight fight between the SNP and Johnson’s Conservatives it would not be unwise to place your money on Sturgeon. The First Minister’s handling of the Covid emergency has led her popularity levels to soar, as Johnson’s have headed in the other direction. With Sturgeon empowered to make life-and-death decisions, shut down large parts of the economy and confine Scots to their homes – not to mention her televised daily press conferences – the pandemic has given the country a taste of autonomy that many voters have found to their liking.
In Johnson, meanwhile, the UK has a Prime Minister who, from a northern viewpoint, is a louche, entitled Old Etonian, a Brexiteer chancer with a rackety private life. He is driven by personal ambition rather than moral purpose and greedily embraces English nationalism when it suits his populist instincts. He could be hand-knitted to repulse Scots. “If we have to fight an independence referendum he is the worst possible PM,” says Ian Murray, Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary. And while Scotland is ostensibly part of Johnson’s demesne, another consequence of Covid has been that his remit has regularly run out at Carlisle. In many of the policy areas that have mattered over the past tortured year, he has been acting as Prime Minister of England only. “Covid has demonstrated a Union that doesn’t seem to recognise itself in the mirror,” says a Tory strategist.
This is not the whole truth, of course (we’ll come to the issue of economics later), but like Brexit, the heightened influence of the Tory right, the kowtowing to Donald Trump, and Labour’s extremist experiment, the timing and the personnel involved have undoubtedly made Scotland feel less comfortable being part of the UK.
As George Osborne put it, with some pleasure, no doubt: “How can Boris Johnson avoid this disaster – and ignoble title of the worst prime minister ever?”
As always, it’s essential to understand the numbers. There has been a consistent run of polls showing independence is now the preference of Scots, with support ranging from 51 to 58 per cent. This shift has mainly come from those who voted No in 2014 and Remain in 2016, and for whom Brexit feels like a deal-breaker.
But dig a little deeper and doubts remain. The pollster Mark Diffley of the Diffley Partnership says the key demographic is the 20 per cent of Scots who have yet to fully make up their minds – the “indy-curious” – and that the pro-independence side can’t be overly confident. “The polling tends to be quite binary, asking people whether they are Yes or No,” says Diffley. “If you ask the question in a different way, that 20 per cent tend to be a bit more on the fence. Some of them have definitely jumped ship from No to Yes, but not all. Others are waiting to see what impact Brexit will have and in the end may not follow through on their curiosity. It’s not the slam dunk it sometimes seems to be.”
In 2014 the Better Together campaign focused on the economic risks of independence and was consequently dubbed “Project Fear”. Scots were simply better off in the Union, it was argued: the UK was a safe harbour; oil revenues were diminishing fast; inward investment would collapse; the newly independent state would start out with a deficit of billions and also have to absorb a chunky share of existing British debt; the currency options were horrendous.
Leaving the UK would also mean leaving the EU and having to apply for re-entry – something the Spanish, facing their own Catalonian unrest, might look to frustrate. This would also erect a disastrous trading border with the rest of the UK, by some margin Scotland’s largest export market. Politicians and business leaders from around the world lined up to warn of the economic chill that awaited. The Queen and the governor of the Bank of England each wrinkled an eyebrow to make their concerns known. Vladimir Putin thought independence was a good idea.
It was enough to do the job, even if the 55-45 per cent split was closer than anyone had expected at the campaign’s outset. But that was then. While some of those arguments will still have traction in a second referendum, others won’t.
The most obvious and the most damaging change is EU membership. Having accepted the warnings about an enforced departure from Europe in 2014, many No voters saw the Brexit decision that followed just two years later as a betrayal. Scotland voted 62-38 to stay in the EU but a relatively narrow English majority for Leave won the day. This was driven in part by an English nationalism and a resurgent Tory right that had little echo north of the border; almost every senior politician in Scotland, of every stripe, had been in favour of Remain. Many Scots felt – and still feel – disenfranchised and ignored; that the balancing mechanisms enabling our cumbrous, asymmetric Union to operate had effectively broken.
Brexit allowed Sturgeon to reopen the case for independence earlier than expected, citing a “material change in circumstances” since 2014. While voters initially blanched at the prospect of returning to the polling booth so quickly, the chaotic Westminster politics of the following years – the radicalisation of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, the arrival of Johnson as PM and the bungled handling of Covid – started to change minds. The polls began to move in favour of Yes.
[See also: Is the SNP about to implode?]
It was ironic that many of the warnings issued by business and politicians in 2014 were repeated in relation to Brexit in 2016. This time they fell flat, particularly with English voters. Instead, the principle of sovereignty, of taking back control, mattered more than economic well-being. Some of this spirit, as well as a degree of embarrassment, has since found its way into Scots’ view of independence. “Economic factors will clearly be crucial again,” says Diffley, the pollster, “but people are much more open-minded than they were before. The argument of a UK safety net that No campaigners used before doesn’t exist to the same extent. If independence campaigners can get to the point where the economic debate is a stalemate they’ll view that as a victory.”
On the unionist side – or, more accurately, sides – there is an acceptance that this time they are starting from behind, and that there is no easy or obvious strategy to draw Scotland back from the edge. The Conservatives, says a party insider, are split between “the considered, thoughtful ones who accept the SNP sometimes has a point about the way the UK is working and who want to tackle it, and those who just say no to the whole problem, who think all this can be blamed on the advent of devolution in 1999, and that the return of sovereignty to Westminster from the EU heralds a brave new dawn for Britain. Sadly, the latter seem to have the upper hand at the moment.”
There seems to be a growing view at Westminster that, regardless of how Scots vote in May, Johnson should refuse to allow a second independence referendum. Legal permission remains in the gift of the British government, in the form of a Section 30 order that enables Holyrood to pass laws normally reserved to Westminster. But this would risk public outrage in Scotland, perhaps even civil unrest. The prospect of such a block led the SNP on 23 January to set out a plan B for securing independence in which the Scottish parliament would pass referendum legislation and challenge the British government to take it to court. This raises the unhappy spectre of the SNP staging a Catalonia-style wildcat referendum, which Sturgeon has previously spoken against.
The more convincing – and certainly more democratically justifiable – case for a block from Westminster is that it would be a delaying tactic, allowing unionist forces to muster ahead of an eventual referendum and in the hope that, in the meantime, events knock some of the shine off the SNP and the case for separation. The UK government believes its substantial economic support for Scotland through the furlough scheme and other emergency spending during the Covid crisis has been under-appreciated in Scotland. This case was made forcefully by Johnson on a 28 January trip to Glasgow, on which he said the UK had “pulled together to defeat the virus, providing £8.6bn to the Scottish government to support public services whilst also protecting the jobs of more than 930,000 citizens in Scotland”.
The EU Structural and Investment Funds will be replaced with a UK Shared Prosperity Fund, bypassing Holyrood and allowing Westminster to spend in devolved areas such as education and infrastructure. “It’s not enough for Boris to just say ‘no’,” says Tomkins, the Conservative MSP. “He has to say ‘no because…’; that, ‘We are going to show you over a period of time that you don’t need independence to achieve what you want to achieve.’ Not that independence is bad, but that it’s unnecessary.”
Not everyone thinks this is a smart move. “This is just stumbling on as we usually do,” says another Conservative. “A few hundred million there, a Union Jack there, but it’s no quick fix. And it’s divisive rather than unifying, designed only for the 25 per cent who are core No voters.”
There are Tories at Westminster who want a more comprehensive rethink. It’s understood that some around the Prime Minister are pushing for a Royal Commission that would examine the constitution of the UK as a whole and recommend reforms. “We have to look at why people are feeling angry, frustrated, disrespected and ignored,” says a source. “Brexit is done and we’re coming out of Covid now – this is a massive opportunity to look at the questions and flaws exposed by both. Not just in Scotland, but in Wales and Northern Ireland and in the English regions. Let’s do it properly.”
In 2014 the Conservatives worked alongside Labour in the Better Together campaign. That won’t happen again. The alliance particularly damaged Labour in Scotland, to the extent that in the 2015 general election it went from 41 Scottish seats to one, while the SNP won 56.
Keir Starmer has asked Gordon Brown to develop plans to devolve more power across the UK and to rejuvenate the party in Scotland. The departure of the ineffective Richard Leonard as Scottish leader will help in the medium to long term, but his replacement – the contest is between MSPs Anas Sarwar and Monica Lennon – will have little time to make an impact before May.
Labour, once dominant in Scotland, has lost its way. Both the SNP and the Conservatives have a straightforward and easy-to- understand position on Scottish independence. Labour – whose membership in Scotland is estimated to be split around 60-40 in favour of support for the Union – has walked something of a tightrope, and frequently fallen off. It has lost all its Scottish MEPs and all but one of its MPs. It is in a sorry third place at Holyrood, behind the Conservatives. Once the undisputed master of Scottish politics and the nation’s pressure valve within the Union, the party risks being little more than a ghost at the nationalist coronation.
Both in London and Edinburgh, there is hope that a distinctive new offer, which strategists are calling “radical federalism” (its meaning is still relatively vague), can become Labour’s fixed position. “You can’t solve the Scottish question without solving the English question,” says Ian Murray. “Look at how well Andy Burnham and the other mayors have done bringing power closer to the people. What Labour adds is the principle of redistribution, of solidarity. We will have our own proposal, which we want to see in our manifesto. This should stop people asking if we support independence or the status quo – the answer is ‘neither’.”
Sarwar is favourite to win the Labour leadership, and intends to harry the SNP over the timing of a referendum. A liked and respected moderate, and son of the former Labour MP Mohammad Sarwar, he fell out of favour during Leonard’s reign. The next five years at Holyrood, he will argue, should be a “Covid recovery” parliament, focused on lost jobs, the economy, education and healthcare. “Nobody is saying ‘not ever’ to a second referendum,” insists Murray. “Even Alister Jack [the Scottish Secretary] says 40 years. Just definitely ‘not now’.”
There are still significant strengths to the unionist case. The economic challenges of Scottish independence have not gone away – not least a deficit estimated in the Scottish government’s figures to be £15bn, or 8.6 per cent of its GDP, for 2019-20. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that Covid spending could drive that figure up to 26-28 per cent of GDP in the next few years, and that it will still be at elevated levels in 2024-25. Further, Brexit means that, in rejoining the EU, an independent Scotland would face a trade border with England and the rest of the UK. Currently, 60 per cent of Scotland’s exports go to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the EU accounting for 19 per cent and non-EU countries for 21 per cent. Would freedom of movement and a return to the European family be worth the potential economic hit?
Questions about currency, and how re-denomination might impact personal finances such as mortgages, pensions and savings, have yet to be convincingly answered by the SNP. When a referendum campaign arrives and the economic case is so starkly put, No may yet carry a winning weight.
The second advantage to unionists is that the wheels are coming off the SNP’s once formidable leadership. The closer the nationalists get to their goal, the more their inner tensions are exposed. There is now a substantial minority of the SNP that wants to see Sturgeon, arguably the UK’s most popular politician, deposed. This grouping is sympathetic to her predecessor Alex Salmond, and accuses the First Minister and her allies of conspiring to help bring Salmond to court on charges of sexual assault, of which he was cleared on 23 March last year.
The rebels have secured a number of places on the SNP’s National Executive Committee, and Joanna Cherry, the formidable MP and QC, is pushing for the party to adopt a more aggressive approach to securing independence. (Cherry was sacked from her post as home affairs spokesperson on 1 February.) There is also unhappiness at the way Sturgeon runs her government, through a clique that includes her husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP chief executive.
While this infighting seems not to have affected voting intentions so far, Salmond’s pursuit of the party leadership could yet have an impact. He accuses Sturgeon of misleading parliament about the accusations against him, which if proved could force her resignation for breaking the ministerial code. Even if she remains in post, the scandal could undermine public trust in her probity. The interim Scottish Labour leader, Jackie Baillie, has urged the Crown Office to examine whether Murrell committed perjury during his evidence session.
“The people around the cabinet table in Downing Street have to better understand the Britain they are seeking to govern, as do their advisers and the civil service,” says Adam Tomkins. “The UK is now more about the four nations than it has been before. For Scots under 40, the British state seems practically irrelevant. They don’t know what the added value of the Union is.”
Whether it’s directly elected mayors in Manchester and Liverpool, growing self-confidence in the Welsh nationalist movement, or Northern Ireland flashing an ankle at the prospect of reunification with the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom has changed fundamentally. The Covid pandemic has accelerated the change. There is no going back to the centralised ways of old, and those at the centre who want to save the Union must start listening rather than lecturing. It may already be too late, of course, but if the UK is to be saved, it can only be done as a union of willing volunteers, not miserable conscripts.
This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair