There is a palpable sense of foreboding in Britain at the moment. Months of talks with the European Union on agreeing a free trade deal remain deadlocked even as the December 31 deadline fast approaches when the transition period ends and the UK finally leaves the EU. And across the country coronavirus cases are on the increase, raising the prospect of more restrictions on daily life.
But another looming threat, linked to both Brexit and Covid-19, has potentially even more long-lasting consequences for the very integrity of the UK. Popular support in Scotland to break away from the rest of the Britain has reached unprecedented levels. The latest opinion poll, released last week by market research company Savanta ComRes, shows 58 per cent of Scots now support independence, up from 44 per cent only a year ago.
This poll result was not a one-off result; support for secession in Scotland has been rising steadily. In 2014, Scots voted to reject independence in a referendum.
The Scottish National Party (SNP), which campaigns for independence and holds power in the devolved Scottish government, acknowledged that result as a once-in-a-generation vote. But only six years later, party leader Nicola Sturgeon now maintains that Scottish independence is “in clear sight”.
If, as expected, she is re-elected as Scotland’s First Minister in the election next May, she is expected to call on the UK government to allow a second referendum, confident this time of victory. Though the British government of Boris Johnson has so far ruled out allowing another referendum, many observers predict that this will be a hard position to maintain if the SNP does well in the election. The key factor in the SNP’s renewed confidence is Brexit.
The SNP leader has long argued that Britain’s decision to leave the EU in the 2016 national referendum does not apply to Scotland, since most people there voted to stay. And this argument seems to be winning over Scots. The strongest reason given in the latest opinion poll for supporting independence was a feeling that the UK parliament at Westminster did not have Scotland’s interests at heart. Support for independence is now growing among Scots who voted to leave the EU as well as “remainers”.
The SNP has been accused of using the pandemic as another weapon in its fight to persuade Scots that they would be better off outside Britain. Ms Sturgeon has worked tirelessly to portray her government as handling the pandemic more successfully than the national government in London. Coronavirus death rates are actually higher in Scotland than in England and those for vulnerable elderly people in care homes are over twice the rate south of the border. But this has not dented Ms Sturgeon’s popularity or that of her party.
One factor in her favour is the unpopularity in Scotland of the current British government, and in particular Prime Minister Johnson. Polling shows over three-quarters of Scots disapprove of Mr Johnson’s leadership, while 72 per cent think Ms Sturgeon is doing a good job as their First Minister. No surprise, then, that Ms Sturgeon is keen to demand an independence referendum sooner rather than later, knowing a change of government and prime minister in London could alter the picture.
Mr Johnson certainly did not help his standing in Scotland by declaring recently that the idea of devolving powers to a Scottish assembly 20 years ago was a “mistake” by the then Labour government of Tony Blair. While it may be true that Mr Blair’s aim of using devolution as a way to halt any move towards full independence has failed, Mr Johnson’s remarks went down badly in Scotland.
It may seem odd that Scots would want to leave the UK based on the unpopularity of one particular British government. But Ms Sturgeon and her party are past-masters at promoting and exploiting a latent culture of grievance among Scots against a more powerful England that has supposedly exploited them for centuries and continues to do so.
It is a policy that reveals an anti-English chauvinism behind the SNP’s progressive, left-wing facade and its supposedly inclusive notion of Scottish nationalism. It is also an image belied by the deep interconnectedness of England and Scotland over centuries and the leading role of Scots in all aspects of British life, including at the top levels of government.
Ms Sturgeon and the SNP may have a poor record in governing Scotland; their claims that the country would be economically better off outside the UK may be groundless. But polls show their agenda of independence for Scotland is one that is finding growing support.
With the increasing likelihood of another referendum, the latest polls show that those who seek to keep the UK together need to rethink their strategy. Arguments based on economics – that national spending per head is greater in Scotland than in England or that the British treasury is currently providing tens of billions in coronavirus support that an independent Scotland would be unable to match – are clearly not enough to win the argument.
What is clearly needed is a political campaign to underline the strength of the UK – the reality of a modern, cohesive, interdependent country where individual national traditions do not imply the need for political borders and where Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish have much more in common than divides them.
This should be a priority for the national government, since the end of the UK would be an unprecedented act of national self-harm that would undermine British global influence much more than Brexit, and would weaken liberal democracy in a world where authoritarian models are gaining power.
David Powell is a media analyst and former journalist with a range of pan-Arab broadcast media, including BBC Arabic