Why support for Scottish independence has surged during the Covid-19 crisis

The autonomy demonstrated by the Scottish government has given voters an enticing taste of separation. 

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Nicola Sturgeon turns 50 this month. It’s one of life’s staging posts, a moment for taking stock, for weighing oneself in the balance – a time, as Martin Amis unromantically puts it, “to stop saying hi and to start saying bye”. 

Scotland’s First Minister is anyway among the more openly reflective national leaders. She shares, say, Barack Obama’s tendency towards contemplative self-excavation rather than Boris Johnson’s upbeat boarding-school boosterism. 

The personal and political lessons to be drawn from recent events are inevitably percolating in her mind. “I’m not going to come out of this exactly the same as I was when I went into it,” she tells Alastair Campbell in a new interview. “I think inevitably it is shifting my perspective on things. It’s making me re-evaluate what’s important in life and what’s maybe not quite so important, and I think it probably is lowering my tolerance to some of the nonsense of politics.”

She admits to being “a politician to my fingertips” and says she relishes the battle of ideas, “but a lot of modern politics is not really about that, it’s just about chucking mud at each other and forcing yourself to always believe the worst of your opponent. I think my tolerance of that, certainly at the moment, is a bit lower than it was previously and who knows I might get over that, but I hope not in some ways.”

If the half-century is a weighty personal milestone, it’s still a relatively tender age for a politician. Already, Sturgeon has been a frontbencher for 20 years, a cabinet minister for 13 of them, and first minister for the past five. One might think her story is largely written, that she will share the unsought fate with her generation of leaders of being defined by their response to Covid-19. But it’s not unthinkable she may yet transcend it.

The battle for Scottish independence – the key motivating cause of Sturgeon’s political life – remains unwon, but not unwinnable. Polls are regularly putting public support for a separate Scottish state at 50 per cent and above – the most recent found 54 per cent in favour, with almost 70 per cent support among 16-34 year olds. This has prompted former SNP strategist Kevin Pringle to suggest cheekily that it is Unionists who should now regard themselves as being in the minority position. He may not be wrong.

Back in April, I thought it possible the health and economic crisis would hurt the nationalist cause – that the Treasury’s emergency borrowing and spending, the unprecedented co-operation between Holyrood and Westminster, and pan-UK public solidarity with key workers and Covid-19’s victims, might strengthen head-and-heart support for the Union. The polls suggest this has not been the case.

Instead, the First Minister looks likely to go into next year’s Scottish parliament election with a strong wind at her back. There is no real likelihood that she will lose her job, and every possibility that a majority of the MSPs elected will be pro-independence (a new Panelbase poll suggests the SNP will win 74 of Holyrood’s 129 seats). 

This would mean the electorate has given Sturgeon a mandate for that second referendum. If Johnson maintains his current stance and refuses to allow one to take place, we will find ourselves in an unprecedented constitutional crisis which the SNP will prosecute for all its worth.

The UK government is finally getting serious about defending the Union. A Union Unit has been created in No 10, led by Michael Gove, to recast the case for being “better together”. Johnson has shown he is happy to aggressively challenge the SNP on devolved matters, while Whitehall is planning a spending programme intended to show Scots the advantages of staying in. The economic consequences of battling Covid-19 may yet prove serious enough to persuade enough voters north of the border that now is not the time for more constitutional upheaval and uncertainty.

Set against this is the significant level of autonomy demonstrated by the Scottish government during lockdown. Scotland has very much gone its own way, diverging on how to deploy the extra public spending, the tone of its national debate, and the timescale for easing restrictions: it has had a taste of what it’s like to make its own mind up in areas beyond the usual devolved competences. Sturgeon’s televised daily press briefings mean she has been presidentially omnipresent in the nation’s living rooms, a physical representation of the fact that she has remained doggedly at the wheel throughout, in visible contrast to the more erratic Johnson and the stuttering performance of his cabinet. Her personal trust levels are high (Sturgeon’s approval rating stands at +60 compared to -39 for Johnson), and her international reputation enhanced.

Ultimately, the data may show many of the same mistakes were made in London and Edinburgh, and there is no shortage of criticism of Sturgeon’s decision-making through the crisis, or of her administration’s performance more broadly. But she has performed one of the key tasks of a leader in hard times with aplomb, displaying commitment and empathy, taking responsibility, and doing what she believes to be right even when it has been unpopular.

Scotland’s constitutional future will in the end be decided by a relatively small proportion of its population – the 10 per cent or so of floating voters who are there to be convinced by the competing merits of union versus independence. Wrapped into all this will be judgements on Johnson and Keir Starmer, on Brexit, on values, on that enticing taste of autonomy, on the economic gamble, on the culture war. 

The mud will fly, and will be flung by both sides, however distasteful this seems to the First Minister at present. The “nonsense of politics” will prove harder to avoid in her next big battle.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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