Could Covid lead to Scotland’s independence?
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, decided last week that Aberdeen, the country’s third-largest city, would have to return to lockdown in response to an alarming spike in the Covid pandemic. Days later, the Edinburgh Festival, normally a prestigious and high-profile annual cultural event, announced that the night sky would be illuminated by hundreds of spotlights to attract a wider audience - albeit only online this extraordinary year.
Coronavirus has led to uncertain times across the world, in addition to unprecedented scrutiny of governments as to how they are dealing with it. In Scotland, one of the effects has been to bolster the idea of independence from the United Kingdom. Sturgeon has done well on both counts – certainly compared to Boris Johnson, the British prime minister.
Matter-of-fact, honest and responsible, the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader in Edinburgh’s Holyrood parliament has performed well compared to the blustering, self-advertising and egotistic Conservative occupant of 10 Downing Street. Scotland’s messaging has been far better and its death-rate notably lower than England’s.
In the last independence referendum, in 2014, 55% of Scottish voters opted to remain in the UK. Signs are multiplying that that is now changing – and that one result of the pandemic may be the reversal of the “Act of Union” of 1707 – a landmark in the history of England, Scotland, and the very idea of a United Kingdom and the concept of “unionism.” According to one recent poll, 54% of Scots now favour independence.
Back in the late 1990s, the Labour prime minister Tony Blair, pushed through Scottish “devolution,” together with more autonomy for Northern Ireland and Wales – along with England the countries which Johnson characteristically refers to as the “awesome foursome.” Devolved powers allow Edinburgh (along with Cardiff and Belfast) some flexibility – but only within a framework set by Westminster.
In terms of Sturgeon’s handing of Corona, Scotland’s lockdown was stricter, but could not have started earlier. The devolved nature of public health has allowed her to set local rules on social distancing and masks, thus emphasizing their separation from London, though Scotland has the highest death rate for coronavirus in care homes in the UK.
But Scotland does not have a Treasury with the power to deliver its own furlough scheme, in which the government pays the salaries of suspended employees. Education and policing are also controlled by Holyrood, but foreign and defence policy are run from London.
Another influential factor has been Brexit, the Conservative-led campaign for Britain to leave the EU, and implemented by Johnson on January 31 this year. In the Brexit referendum, in June 2016, 62% of Scots voted to stay in the EU. It was a also key pledge of the pro-unionist camp in the 2014 independence referendum.
Johnson is particularly disliked “north of the border” as the English say. In the 2019 general election, he lost more than half of his party’s seats in Scotland while the SNP performed exceptionally well. The UK prime minister was badly received when he visited Scotland in late July – not least because he deliberately avoided meeting Sturgeon.
With all that, the nationalists are now on course to win a majority in next year’s Scottish parliament elections, according to opinion polls. If this happens, they will claim the political and moral right to hold another referendum even though it still needs the permission of the British parliament.
Under existing rules, however, it remains Johnson’s right to refuse: ”There would be a cost to this kind of obstructionism,” an analyst warned recently: “Scots would soon conclude that their presence in the Union is not voluntary. Independence and democracy would become synonymous concepts in Scottish political culture, and the UK would forfeit what is left of its dwindling legitimacy.”
In the longer term, the greatest problem facing the SNP is the economy. Scotland’s growth rate is about half that of the UK average and unemployment is higher. Thousands of people are employed at the British nuclear submarine base at Faslane, which would presumably no longer exist if voters opted for independence.
Scotland’s budget deficit is also running massively ahead of the UK as a whole. Its problem, “blatantly lies in its long-term political and fiscal dependency on London,” in the words of one (English) expert. Still, attitudes are clearly shifting significantly from No to Yes, so it is ironic that the SNP has barely campaigned for independence in the last few months – largely because Sturgeon has urged supporters to stay off the streets until corona is contained.
Sturgeon is now pursuing a “zero Covid” strategy, with no deaths from one day to the next, whereas Johnson and his government appear ready to tolerate an ongoing level of infection as they try and reopen the UK economy.
The pandemic has made it clearer than ever “that politics is a matter of life and death,” in the words of one commentator. With support for Scottish independence growing to record levels, it is no coincidence that the UK prime minister is planning, along with his fiancé and their young baby, a Corona-induced “staycation” somewhere in Scotland.