Boris Johnson celebrated the first anniversary of his premiership in the Orkney Islands, off the coast of northern Scotland. Even by the hectic standards of modern British politics, the prime minister’s first year in Downing Street has been grueling: an eleventh-hour Brexit renegotiation, a general election, and, just as everything appeared to settle down, the Covid-19 pandemic. Johnson, who was hospitalized with the virus, could be forgiven for thinking that he needs a holiday—and for deciding on a remote Scottish archipelago as a respite from the Westminster mania.
But last week’s trip was strictly business. Johnson, who staked his political future on ending a 47-year marriage between Britain and the European Union, now needs to avoid the breakup of a 300-year union between England and Scotland.
Scotland rejected independence in a 2014 referendum, but that vote brought only a temporary cessation of hostilities between separatists and unionists. With the enduring popularity of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP)—in charge of Scotland’s devolved government since 2008 and the source of 48 of its 59 MPs to Westminster—the specter of another vote continues to haunt the union.
The nationalist cause was given a further boost by Brexit, after a majority of Scots opted for Remain in 2016. Overall, Scottish nationalists’ position on the EU referendum has had three effects on the dynamics of independence. First, it underscored the differences between Scotland and its southern neighbors. Second, it recast the choice in a possible independence vote: an independent Scotland inside the EU or staying as part of an independent U.K. outside the EU. (The ease with which Scotland could rejoin the EU is fiercely disputed.) Third, Brexit has allowed nationalists to make the case for a second referendum. Without Britain’s departure from the EU, a second referendum on independence would have looked like a do-over. But now, the SNP can claim that the relationship between Scots and the institutions that govern them has changed fundamentally since 2014.
All this was cause for unionist alarm. Despite these gathering clouds, however, Scots who didn’t want to leave the U.K. could find solace in the fact that, even during the darkest days of the Brexit turmoil, most polls still showed that they were in the majority.
Then the coronavirus arrived. Recent polls show a meaningful shift in opinion toward independence since the start of the pandemic. According to a Sunday Times/Panelbase survey conducted in early July, 50 percent of Scots would vote “Yes” in an independence referendum, while 43 percent would vote “No.”
While Johnson’s personal ratings have plummeted during the crisis, Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has enjoyed soaring numbers. Indeed, among Scottish voters, the two leaders’ respective approval ratings are separated by a staggering 100 percentage points (-40 and +60, respectively).
Popular perception is arguably at odds with the reality of England and Scotland’s respective handling of the virus. While Scotland has fared slightly better, an international comparison is less flattering. Both Scotland and England experienced among the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in Europe, and the Scottish government made many of the same mistakes as London, including failing to protect elder-care homes—the source of nearly half of Scottish deaths. Johnson claims that his government’s coronavirus response demonstrated the “sheer might” of the union and questioned whether an independent Scotland could have afforded the economic support provided by a united Britain.
Conservative concern about a vote on independence is underscored by a sense of powerlessness. Johnson’s unpopularity means that trips like his jaunt to the Orkneys aren’t necessarily helpful. And it’s easy to see why: a plummy-voiced pro-Brexit Tory might not be the best salesman for the union north of the border. But the problem is bigger than one man. The dynamics of devolution—which was supposed to shore up support for the union—arguably drives support for independence. With the British government largely responsible for raising revenue and the Scottish government responsible for spending it, the result is a lopsided distribution of political blame and credit.
For now, a second referendum remains hypothetical. That’s likely to change after next May’s Scottish elections, in which the SNP is expected to win comfortably. The mandate for another vote on independence would then be hard for the British government to reject.
As the battle lines are drawn ahead of that fight, unionists will hope that the reality of independence—an untangling that would make the Brexit divorce look straightforward—will push enough voters from “Yes” to “No.” But Johnson’s team in 10 Downing Street knows that these arguments won’t necessarily be enough to stop independence. As veterans of the 2016 EU referendum, they understand the electoral potency of the promise of self-government better than most.
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