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Scotland: Under the twin shadows of Covid and Brexit

Johnson’s bungling bolsters Sturgeon and the Scottish desire for independence

In Edinburgh, the silence is everywhere, in empty restaurants and deserted train stations, with people walking quickly by, heads down, and masks on. With such silence, the conversations are all the more precious.

There is the hotel manager trying to keep a hotel running; the elderly restaurant owner with a 30-year-old business left reeling by Covid-19; the fisherman who shrugs, and says, “All we can do is try and help each other.”

In November 2020, Scotland feels much like Ireland; a once-familiar world changed irrevocably by coronavirus. As each has confronted the effects of pandemic, so too each has had to confront Brexit.

With less than a month to go until the end of the transition period, everything still remains unclear – the shape of a United Kingdom/European Union trade deal, and its consequence, or whether there will be one at all.


The ripples flowing from Brexit have impacted on the constitutional questions that could face the island of Ireland and Scotland, depending on the decisions that are made by small group of people in powerful positions in the week ahead.

"Brexit, Covid and Boris", as one independence supporter put it, have coalesced to create, for the first time, a "consistent majority" for Scottish independence, says Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde.

“Since June, at least 14 polls in a row have put the Yes side ahead, leading by, on average, 54 per cent to 46. This is unprecedented. There has never, ever been a previous period where there has been consistent majority support for Yes.”

With elections to the Scottish parliament to be held in May, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and others argue that those elections offer an opportunity for a majority of Scotland's voters to make the case at the ballot box for a second independence referendum.

London’s contempt

"We stand ready to rebuild," says senior Scottish government minister Michael Russell MSP, cabinet secretary for the constitution, Europe and external Affairs, "Who do you trust to take that issue forward, and with whom will you take it forward?

“Will you take it forward with a Scottish government that has the ambition to have Scotland as an independent part of the EU and to work in partnership with others?” he said to The Irish Times this week.

“Or will you trust to take it forward a UK government that is increasingly insular, increasingly separate from others of like mind, and increasingly contemptuous of Scottish democratic institutions? That’s where I think we stand. That’s the choice Scotland has.”

That is one perspective; the Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins talks the need to rebuild, too, but argues that talking about future constitutional battles when coronavirus is not yet defeated is "deeply irresponsible".

“The public health emergency has been a profound shock not only to the economy but to society at large. We need time to heal from that, we need time to recover and rebuild before we start thinking about dividing the country again,” he declares.

Pandemic or not, however, Scottish independence is firmly on the table. The question is what happens next. Westminster must agree to the holding of a second referendum, by ceding powers to Edinburgh to hold one.

Here, however, the British government, for once, perhaps, has been consistently clear. “The question of Scottish independence was settled decisively in 2014, when Scotland voted to remain part of the UK.”

However, Russell rejects the argument: “If the people of Scotland vote democratically next year for a referendum, the terms of which they will know, that is, in my view, in accord with what is the legal situation in Scotland, which is the sovereignty of the Scottish people.”

Sovereign power

Faced with such a vote, it would be morally difficult and internationally inconvenient for Boris Johnson to ignore such a mandate, says Russell: "I hope Boris Johnson will prove himself to be a democrat not a Trumpian. If the Scottish parliament can pass that Bill then he should accept that."

"There's certainly an intellectual and constitutional argument about that, whether it would prevail in practice is another matter," says Prof Michael Keating, chair in Scottish politics at the University of Aberdeen. In the end, the UK Supreme Court will decide, he argues.

Others within the SNP are exploring “Plan B” options. Here, Russell will not be drawn. “The Scottish people are sovereign. The best way to do this beyond doubt is to make sure that the UK government works in a democratic fashion. If it does not, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

The change in the independence debate, says Curtice, has been Brexit. In the Brexit referendum in 2016, 62 per cent of Scots voted Remain. Since then, those for or against independence have increasingly aligned with the Remain or Leave arguments.

The Brexit chaos of October 2019 drove support for independence to 49 per cent, says Curtice, among all Remain voters: “It’s as clear as it ever can be with polling data . . . the pursuit of Brexit was actually beginning now to undermine the aggregate level of support of the union.”

This year, support for independence has increased to 54 or 55 per cent; this time, “more or less evenly among Remain and Leave voters”, says Curtice. “Coronavirus has tipped us from basically a 50/50 situation to one where it looks as though there is a small but consistent majority for Yes.”

Health is a devolved matter; the pandemic has demonstrated as never before the literally life-or-death consequences of divergence from Westminster and has reinforced trust in Holyrood because “people regard them as more reliable”, says Keating.

This lesson has been enhanced by Sturgeon’s popularity, which gleams yet brighter when compared to Johnson’s. According to an Ipsos Mori poll for BBC Scotland last month, only 19 per cent of the Scottish public feel Johnson has handled the pandemic well; 74 per cent think Sturgeon has done so.

Leadership style

This is despite the reality of Scotland's performance. Data from the UK's statistics agencies – which count the number of deaths per 100,000 which mention Covid-19 on the death certificate – puts the Scottish rate at 98.5, compared to 105.9 in England, statistically a gap that is "not really significant", says public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally.

The difference, therefore, has been in style of leadership and presentational skill, with Sturgeon praised for showing up at the briefing podium day after day, unlike her counterpart in London.

“It’s been rhetorically low-key, talking to people, not talking at people, and she always ends up with some stuff about solidarity,” says Curtice. By contrast, the rhetoric from London has been “the world-beating test and trace app, the Moonshot . . . the UK government has then failed to match this rhetoric.”

Tomkins dismisses this, however: “The constitutional identity and the future of the country is bigger than any one person, whoever that is . . . This is not about the identity of the person who is prime minister for the time being.”

It is self-evident that a positive view of Sturgeon does not necessarily translate into support for independence. In politics, popularity ratings are fickle creatures that could be quickly eroded by Covid and Brexit.

And then there is the bitterness between the Sturgeon and Alex Salmond SNP camps over the Scottish government's handling of sexual harassment complaints against Salmond, and the outcome of the inquiry into that led by former Irish director of public prosecutions, James Hamilton.

Salmond was acquitted of charges of sexual assault earlier this year.

That said, it seems reasonable to infer that at least some of the popular support Sturgeon won during the coronavirus crisis will transfer to her party come the election.

“I think it’s been handled really well – and I’m not pro-SNP,” says one woman having a socially distanced coffee in a park in the centre of Edinburgh. “I think Nicola Sturgeon’s done a pretty brilliant job. It wouldn’t change my opinion on independence, but that doesn’t take away from what she’s done as a leader at a really difficult time.”

"She has done such a good job. I didn't rate her highly before," says Lesley Blues. "But that doesn't mean I want independence."

Emotive message

"When you look at her leadership skills in comparison to Boris Johnson, it would sway some people, the way she has conducted herself and handled things," says Dan Steele. He has always been pro-independence, and knows people who voted No in the last referendum who have since changed their minds. "London has so much control over us. We should be making these decisions ourselves."

This will change; for Keating, the election battles ahead will be fought not between the roughly half of the electorate who are pro-independence and pro-European, or the quarter who are Conservatives and support “a hard unionism and a hard Brexit”, but the quarter left “to play for, who are mostly Labour voters, who are in between the two”.

The main problem with unionism, says Keating, is that “they just don’t know. They can’t articulate what the union is for any more, they’re searching for some kind of message that’s more than just about technical issues over the currency and budget deficits, a big message, a more emotive message as well, and they’re finding it difficult to articulate that.”

Within Labour, the identity crisis is all the more marked, as the party struggles to find a coherent identity among those who are “hard union”, those who favour an enhanced devolution, and those who believe the best way forward is to grant and win another referendum.

Among the unionist parties there is much talk of polarisation in Scottish society and of the “complete failure to even listen to or consider the opinions and concerns raised”, says Labour MSP Neil Findlay. “Every issue from dog shit to international crime becomes a constitutional issue.”

Significantly, the recent increase in support for independence “has occurred in a vacuum . . . it’s occurred at a time when Scotland has not been debating the merits or otherwise of independence”, says Curtice.

In the context of coronavirus – when all governments have had to borrow extensively – many of the economic arguments made against independence have moved on, he argues; much will also depend on how Brexit plays out.

If 2020 has been an unprecedented year, 2021 appears uncertain, with so much in doubt. For now, everything remains unsettled, but the 12 months to come could lay foundations for decades to come.