Scotland has never been closer to independence – and Boris Johnson is to blame

As independence becomes the majority position of the Scottish people, unionists are desperately short of answers. 

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“In the early hours of this morning, Scotland voted Yes. We are a nation reborn. The community of this realm has spoken. Scotland shall be independent once again. 

“I want every person, Yes voters, No voters, everyone in this proud and ancient nation to pause, reflect upon and remember this greatest day in Scotland’s history.

“We did this. We made it happen. We believed. We trusted ourselves and trusted each other. What we have done this day will inspire and empower not just this generation but the many yet unborn.

“They will learn of this momentous day and thank you for investing your trust in each other. And in them.”

The speech of Alex Salmond’s life is one he never gave: fewer than 500 words to announce that Scotland had, in September 2014, taken the irrevocable step to independence. Instead, Scotland said No, and these monumental sentences are a mere historical curio, their power and poetry dimmed by failure.

I don’t know whether Nicola Sturgeon has her own victory oration typed, buffed and ready to go in a heavily alarmed safe somewhere in the guts of SNP HQ. It’s unlikely – too presumptuous, not her style. One could understand a twitch of superstition in this matter.

But it’s not hard to imagine her giving it a shot in front of the bedroom mirror this week, a would-be rock goddess with a tennis racquet. How many times must it all have played out on the insides of her eyelids as she’s drifted off at night – the sea of shining faces, the lusty singing and chanting, the hand of history on her shoulder. She steps up to the podium…

In the near-century of the SNP’s existence, the break-up of the UK has never been closer. A haggis-dropper of a poll has put backing for a Yes vote at 58 per cent, its highest-ever level. Be in no doubt that independence is currently the majority position of the Scottish people. Nine polls in a row since June have said so. 

It feels increasingly like the question must once again be put and answered – 64 per cent of Scots say a second referendum should be allowed within the next five years if the SNP wins a majority of seats in May’s Holyrood elections. Whatever Boris Johnson maintains at the moment, it will be hard to resist.

[See also: Why the Conservatives block a second Scottish referendum at their peril]

It’s ironic that this swell in support is not entirely, or even largely, the SNP’s doing. Sturgeon can take her share of the credit for the way she has led throughout the Covid-19 pandemic: facing up, putting in the hours, grinding it out. Where there have been failures – the statistical record is not dissimilar to that across the rest of the UK – she has, so far, found a populace that gets how hard it all is, that appreciates the nicks and bruises she is taking along the way.

But the surge is at least as much about rejection as projection. Scotland is saying No to Johnson, to the louche, coddled public-schoolisms of the cabinet. You don’t leave an empty chair in a crisis, or greasily avoid blame that is rightfully yours, leaking and briefing in a way designed to bop young Rishi and Matt on the head, or land old Whitters in the soup. This, in Scottish terminology, is the behaviour of a bawbag.

It’s saying No to Brexit, both in fact and in principle. We didn’t want it, and still don’t, but more consequential is what it has exposed about the imbalances of the Union. It’s the demographics, stupid: you’re too big and we’re too wee, and time and again since the 2016 vote you’ve shown you’re not listening to us. Does the SNP play games, start fires, toss out grievances like bread for the ducks? God, yes. But Scots are not the only ones blanching at the indifferent curl of the Etonian lip, at the sense of contemptuous sweaty-sock jokes shared in corners of the cabinet room. Look at Wales and Northern Ireland. In fact, look at Manchester, at Liverpool.

The pro-indy surge is happening despite the absence of a Yes campaign – its lack is one of the key criticisms made by Sturgeon’s internal opponents. Even her supporters privately lament that she is so engrossed in fighting Covid-19 that she has forgotten the party’s founding purpose.

It’s happening despite what is, to all intents and purposes, a civil war in Scotland’s ruling party – between Sturgeon and Salmond and their respective camps, currently playing out in real-time in a Holyrood committee room. And despite a governing record that over 13 years has rarely risen above mediocre, and that has been defined by caution, the greedy hoarding of political capital, and the refusal to take on the vested interests that block desperately-needed reform of public services.

[See also: Why SNP chief executive Peter Murrell is facing an internal revolt]

It’s happening despite a business community that looks at the SNP and sees a movement almost wholly unsympathetic to the wealth creation that underwrites the public purse and provides the majority of our jobs; that feels talked over and patronised, and that wonders why, given the scale of the challenge, there’s no economic equivalent of the world-class public health experts and officials who have risen to prominence in the Covid era.

And it’s happening despite the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland figures, which show, year after year, that an independent Scotland would start life with a gargantuan deficit that would have to be addressed through steep spending cuts and tax rises, whatever the blah about growth and an independence dividend. It’s happening despite unanswered questions about currency and EU membership and trade relations with England, which remains Scotland’s largest market by a distance.

I’m not the only one to have written repeatedly, and for some years now, that the case for the Union must urgently be refreshed. The negative strategy of 2014 deserves to be left there. But there is still little sign of that new, improved argument emerging – some UK-funded roadworks here, a Union Unit there, but pretty much the same old scare stories.

A plethora of pro-UK groups has been set up to do the intellectual heavy-lifting. Gordon Brown has his own one, of course, there’s the academic-backed Scotland in Union, and now Scottish Business UK, an “independent, non-party voice for business leaders who want to see Scotland thrive economically as part of the United Kingdom”. There is much crossover between the memberships, and indeed of the work. Little of it, from what I can see, is new, compelling or especially insightful.

In place of innovative thinking from unionists, we instead have some old and frankly dangerous proposals raising their heads: put devolution back in the bottle; take powers away from Holyrood and back to Westminster; introduce technical gimmickry around turnout levels or majority thresholds so that something more than the traditional “50 per cent plus one” is required.

The surge in support for independence appears to have broken free of party politics – there is a kind of transference taking place. This also happened in 2014, as SNP advisers admitted at the time: the sense that it was legitimate to vote Yes spread from friend to friend, brother to sister, colleague to colleague. Today, it’s not about what the politicians say – who can believe them, any of them, given their track record? It’s about what you see with your own eyes and feel in your own heart. It’s about having had enough – about wanting control, wanting a sympathetic demos and empathetic leadership. It seems to be about hope, and hope, as we know, is contagious.

Unionist campaigners rightly point out that the race is far from run. They believe, with justification, that the economic realities of leaving the UK will have more purchase amid the heat of a referendum campaign, when voters are forced to confront the looming implications for their pensions and savings, for public services and jobs, for access to English markets. 

It may be that this latest poll is an outlier – most others have put support for independence just under 55 per cent. But it is nevertheless perilously close to the totemic 60 per cent that would seem to guarantee a victory for Yes, and it suggests the relentlessly upward momentum of recent months is not yet exhausted.

Boris Johnson is not the hero who will save the Union, but the anti-hero who, in attempting to dig out the weeds, is also uprooting the flowers. Scotland is being pushed towards leaving, and so has begun to pull. The centre, it seems, cannot hold.

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

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