Image Courtesy of Geograph
Andrea Douglas, Queens University.
Scottish nationalists have been fighting for independence for decades. Until ten years ago, the goal of actually seceding had been the distant, unrealistic dream of activists, radicals and political writers. Now, however, that dream may be attainable. Compared to the 2014 referendum when Scotland voted to stay, political attitudes have shifted. A majority of Scottish people are now in favour of separating from the United Kingdom, with 52.5% saying they would vote to leave (Landler). This shift in public opinion has been accelerated by Brexit, the increasingly polarized politics between Scotland and England, and the COVID-19 pandemic which has highlighted the disparities between the two countries.
The Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707 was a contingent agreement. Scotland never gave up its clear border and distinct legal and educational systems. Instead, the union was meant to be a collaboration. Scotland would benefit from having access to the growing British Empire and England would profit from an influx of Scottish entrepreneurs, engineers, academics and legal professionals. Times have changed and due to Brexit, Scotland risks being isolated in the North Sea and cut off from the economic prosperity of the European Union.
In 2014, Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom – and thereby in the European Union – with 55.3% of voters in favour of remaining and 44.7% in favour of separating (Landler). Recently, for the first time since the referendum, polls are consistently showing a majority in favour of leaving the U.K. It would be an understatement to say that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is concerned over the state of affairs with Scotland. After the tumultuous elections last fall, the commonly deemed ‘unlawful’ prorogation of parliament and the general discontent over Johnson’s handling of Brexit, tensions between the two nations are palpable.
On the topic of Brexit, an overwhelming 62% of Scottish people voted to stay in the European Union, with only 38% voting to leave (EU Referendum Results). Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that “Brexit, and the way in which it is being implemented, immeasurably strengthens the case for Scotland becoming an independent country with the ability to shape our own destiny and contribute positively to the world” (BBC News).
Another important reason Scotland may secede from the United Kingdom is dislike for Johnson himself. In direct contrast to Johnson’s success in England, in Scotland, conservatives lost seats in the election to the “pro-independence, and staunchly Europhile, Scottish National Party” (Maxwell). Part of the reason why so many Scots hate Johnson is because he is prepared to accept a no-deal Brexit, which is wildly unpopular. And the negative opinion runs both ways. Johnson publicly declares himself a unionist but, privately, many government officials say he can be heard scorning Scotland and calling them “too left-wing” because they spend too much on welfare. (Stephens)
Johnson’s prejudice towards the Scots is now reflected in legislation being put before the central government – legislation that would create a U.K. single market. The purpose of this would be to tighten England’s grip over the rest of the United Kingdom. All major decisions previously left up to the European Union – including environmental and food regulations, labour laws and industrial standards – will now be determined by the British government. The devolved powers already enjoyed by Scotland – like health care and education – would be diluted. This new legislation is extremely unpopular and the rising sentiment among the Scottish is that their nation is a prisoner of right-wing English conservatism. Sturgeon has gone so far as to label it a “full-frontal, no-holds-barred assault on devolution”. (Jefferson and Reed) By asserting this unequivocal English supremacy, Johnson is pushing Scotland towards separation.
In the hopes of tamping down on the growing nationalism in the north, Johnson sent his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, to Scotland. Sunak is the man responsible for coordinating the British government’s economic rescue effort in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his message in Scotland has been one of unity. He has emphasized the fact that 65,000 Scottish firms have been aided by almost 2 billion pounds in loans. (Landler) He has also stressed that this lockdown has, contrary to popular belief, reaffirmed the enduring value of the union between England and Scotland. He said: “If I look at the last few months, to me that is a good example of the union working really well” (Landler). Sunak is the fourth cabinet minister to have travelled to Scotland in just July and August alone. According to John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, the “U.K. government is sufficiently worried that it is sending people north on a regular basis,” thereby demonstrating how serious this issue is (Landler).
Secessionist feelings have been growing particularly quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic because many Scots believe they have done a much better job at handling the pandemic than the central government. England’s per capita death rate is significantly higher than that of Scotland and they consistently report more cases. Sturgeon’s government has control over public health in Scotland and their cautious response has increased popularity of the Scottish National Party. In fact, the SNP is set to “run up a huge mandate in parliamentary elections next May” (Landler), which would make it significantly harder for Johnson to refuse the Scots another referendum in the next few years.
To many Scots, this pandemic has only reinforced their political estrangement from England. Unlike Johnson’s haphazard, botched response to the pandemic – which has provided Britain with the highest death rate from COVID-19 of any other European country (Jefferson and Reed) — Sturgeon has been less swift to lift lockdowns and much more eager to promote and enforce mask wearing and social distancing. The Scottish response to COVID-19 has simultaneously highlighted the limits of Scottish autonomy in the United Kingdom and revealed how effectively Scotland can run its own major affairs.
On September 1, 2020, Sturgeon announced she had new plans to make Scottish independence a reality. The government had hoped to hold a referendum during the current term of parliament but most ministers agreed to try to secure an agreement with the central government to make sure any vote would be legally assured. Now, her government is actively drafting a bill in preparation for a second referendum (BBC News).
Despite Sturgeon’s emphatic desire for independence, the topic of separatism is still fiercely contested in Scottish politics. The leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, Douglas Ross, said Sturgeon “just doesn’t get it” and that the goal of this trying time should be to “take Scotland forward and recover from this crisis together, not go back to the divisions of the past” (BBC News). The shadow Secretary for the Scottish Labour Party, Ian Murray, is also in agreement with Ross, saying that Sturgeon’s push for a referendum is “reckless” and shows how her “top priority is to divide the people of Scotland” (BBC News). It would seem, however, that the divisions in Scottish society have long been felt and only recently emphasized.
So, will Scotland actually be able to separate? If the events of the last few years are indicative of anything, it’s that Scotland is increasingly politically estranged from their neighbours to the south and they are experiencing more nationalism than they have in decades past. Despite Johnson saying the 2014 referendum was a “once-in-a-generation vote” (Colchester and Hookway), the Scottish people have shown they will continue to fight for independence until their voices are heard in England.
BBC News. Plans for independence vote to be published in draft bill . 1 September 2020. 7 October 2020. <https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-53987594>.
Colchester, Max and James Hookway. As Scottish Independence Calls Grow, U.K. Trumpets Virtues of Unity. 31 August 2020. 7 October 2020. <https://www.wsj.com/articles/as-scottish-independence-calls-grow-u-k-trumpets-virtues-of-unity-11598872480>.
EU Referendum Results. n.d. 7 October 2020. <https://www.bbc.com/news/politics/eu_referendum/results>.
Jefferson, Rodney and Alastair Reed. Boris Johnson’s Policies Have Bolstered Scotland’s Nationalists . 22 September 2020. 7 October 2020. <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-22/boris-johnson-brexit-and-covid-19-are-moving-scots-closer-to-leaving-the-u-k>.
Landler, Mark. Brexit Behind Him, Boris Johnson Tries to Quiet Scotland’s Calls to Leave U.K. 7 August 2020. 7 October 2020. <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/07/world/europe/boris-johnson-scotland-ireland-independence.html>.
Maxwell, Jamie. Boris Johnson and the coronavirus are pushing Scotland to break up with the United Kingdom. 14 September 2020. 7 October 2020. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/09/14/boris-johnson-coronavirus-are-pushing-scotland-break-up-with-united-kingdom/>.
Stephens, Philip. Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan will break the UK union . 17 September 2020. 7 October 2020. <https://www.ft.com/content/53af9378-e1c2-49d1-bf01-25319f218083>.
Image Retrieved from Geograph. Cunliffe, Ian. “March for Scottish Independence – George… © Ian Cunliffe.” March for Scottish Independence – George… © Ian Cunliffe :: Geograph Britain and Ireland, www.geograph.org.uk/photo/6381059.