Boris Johnson became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in July 2019. Since then he has launched four separate initiatives allegedly to save the Union from the threat of Scottish nationalism. The most recent of these, announced on November 18, is intended to “bolster the social and cultural case for Britain” after a “series of missteps” by the conservative leader, according to the Financial Times.
On November 16, Johnson reportedly told a group of Tory MPs that the 1999 transfer of partial legislative powers from London to Scotland had been a “north of the border disaster”. His remark was clearly not intended for a Scottish audience: two decades after its inception, the Scottish Parliament is still very popular with Scottish voters, while opposition to decentralization is marginalized.
Increasingly, the prime minister’s efforts seem to have failed. Johnson’s leadership is a key factor driving swing voters in Scotland towards independence. A survey conducted by JL Partners and cited by POLITICO Europe was completed in September. “The greatest threat to the UK’s future is the Prime Minister every time he opens his mouth,” Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer told Johnson earlier this month via the House of Commons mailing box.
Starmer’s assessment may be correct. For the first time in modern British history, polls show a persistent majority of Scots are in favor of leaving the UK. The Scottish National Party (SNP), meanwhile, expects a sweeping victory in Scotland’s elections next May – a result that would greatly increase the likelihood of another referendum on the breakup of Britain. This weekend, members of the SNP for Independence will meet over a socially distant video link for their annual conference, believing Johnson has become an all-powerful recruiting sergeant on their cause.
Johnson will double his defense of the Union in the coming months as the crucial spring elections for the Scottish Parliament draw near, likely by highlighting Britain’s declared economic advantages and attacking the SNP’s domestic record. However, there is little reason to believe that his next anti-nationalist strategy will be more effective or less counterproductive than the last.
As criticism of Johnson’s response to the coronavirus pandemic mounts, the devastating effects of the virus has played a key role in the disintegration of Anglo-Scottish unity. The UK has one of the worst COVID-19 death rates in the world – a consequence, according to critics, of the British Conservative government’s belated approval of lockdown measures in March. In particular, support for Scottish independence did not begin to enter the majority area until after the pandemic broke out ten months ago.
Scotland has largely followed London’s lead in attempting to contain the health crisis and excess mortality per capita is only marginally lower than England. But SNP boss Nicola Sturgeon, who heads Scotland’s semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh and is responsible for Scottish health and police policy, has benefited politically from the Prime Minister’s botched PR treatment of the outbreak. “Johnson has game show charisma, but he’s a bad communicator,” British writer and journalist Anthony Barnett told me. “Stör is the opposite: it embodies the separate, serious, humble nature of the independence movement.”
This contrast is reflected in the Scottish perception of the two heads of state and government: 74 percent of Scots believe that Sturgeon, an insured media artist, has coped well with the COVID-19 crisis, a BBC poll published in mid-November has been. The number for Johnson is only 19 percent. However, Johnson’s political toxicity in Scotland stems from COVID-19 and suggests a more solid series of divisions. The Conservatives have not won a general election in Scotland since the 1950s, and the party’s commitment to Brexit, which the Scots rejected by a margin of 24 points in 2016, suggests the losing streak will continue for the foreseeable future.
James Mitchell, Professor of Public Order at the University of Edinburgh, believes Johnson’s gilded Old Etonian upbringing and Anglo-centric view of the world have deeply alienated the Scottish electorate, distinguishing the Prime Minister as the most polarizing English politician in Scotland since Margaret Thatcher. “He’s like Thatcher Plus,” Mitchell told me. “He doesn’t understand Scotland. He makes no effort to concern himself with Scotland. “
Johnson may have led the Conservatives to an historic victory in England in the UK general election last December by clearing the Brexit seats in Labour’s northern England heartland. But in Scotland he actually lost ground to the SNP. The arrival in August of a youthful new Scottish Conservative leader in the form of MP Douglas Ross von Moray has so far failed to reverse the party’s fate. After four months in charge and despite various attempts to stand out from the Prime Minister, Ross struggled to positively influence Scottish public opinion. Research published in October found that 34 percent of Scots who had not opted for independence had a “very” or “fairly” negative view of the 37-year-old. The remaining 66 percent didn’t feel strong for him at all.
The SNP is organizing the decentralized elections next May as a referendum over a referendum. If the parties for independence secure a majority of the 129 seats in Holyrood Parliament, nationalist leaders say the British government will have no choice but to get a new legally binding referendum on Scottish secession. Ian Blackford, the group leader of the SNP in Westminster, has even suggested that a new vote could take place by the end of 2021 – although this seems optimistic given Downing Street’s explicit opposition to a repeat of the competition in 2014.
Notable for a party that has been in power for nearly 15 years – the nationalists, who then gained minority control of Holyrood in 2007, under the leadership of Alex Salmond – support for the SNP has reached near-record levels. According to YouGov, Sturgeon’s party is currently in the polls with a massive 56 percent of the vote in the Scottish Parliament compared to the Conservatives with 19 percent and Labor, once a hegemonic force in Scottish politics, with just third place 15 percent .
One of the UK’s foremost electoral experts, John Curtice, believes that enthusiasm for the SNP and independence is driven by profound concerns about the Brexit process, which has steadily eroded Scottish loyalty to the UK state. “The pursuit of a Brexit has weakened many people’s views of the Union’s merits,” he said on November 3rd. “For a significant group of people in Scotland, independence within the EU has now become more attractive than being part of it.” a UK outside the EU. “Sturgeon seems confident that Scotland’s exit from the UK is imminent. The Scots will be independent “sooner rather than later,” she claimed in the summer. However, their path is not free from political obstacles.
In March, Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor as SNP leader and Scottish first minister, was acquitted in an Edinburgh courtroom on multiple charges of sexual misconduct dating back to his time as chairman of Holyrood Parliament. Since then, Salmond and his allies have pointed out the idea that Sturgeon was involved in a conspiracy to discredit their one-time friend and mentor – a claim that Sturgeon denies. “There was no conspiracy” against Salmond, she told the BBC in June. “It’s a bunch of nonsense.” Salmond is now believed to be writing a comprehensive book on the controversy that one of his followers, veteran nationalist politician Jim Sillars, says will be like a “volcanic eruption” for the party.
The SNP also deals with difficult questions about the raw economy of self-government. Some commentators believe the party’s plan to continue using the British pound after independence, rather than creating a separate Scottish currency and central bank, will put a heavy strain on Scotland’s newly independent national finances. Laurie Macfarlane, economics editor at openDemocracy, wrote in October that Scotland is suffering from significant budget and current account deficits and is heavily denominated in foreign currency. So-called sterlingization, in which Scotland’s monetary policy continues to be run from the Bank of England, offers a future of “less sovereignty, not more,” he added. Other observers, including Olli Rehn, former EU economic commissioner, have argued that Scotland would need to set up its own monetary authority in order to qualify for re-entry into the European Union under the EU’s convergence criteria in Maastricht.
There are also concerns among left-wing nationalists that the party’s restrictive spending plans could limit the scope for ambitious social and environmental policies after independence. In 2018 the SNP released a report indicating that Scotland may face up to ten years of financial constraints after leaving the UK. “Personally, I think they don’t go far enough,” Roza Salih, a prominent Glasgow activist, told me. More investment will be needed if an independent Scotland, like many at grassroots level, decides to fund radical initiatives like the Green New Deal, she said.
Yet the differences of opinion within the Scottish independence movement are dwarfed by the larger rifts that now dominate the political and constitutional landscape of Britain. After a decade of Tory rule, the double crises of COVID-19 and Brexit, coupled with Johnson’s increasingly pressed tenure, have roused Scottish hostility towards Westminster and brought Scotland’s 313-year-old union with England closer than ever to the brink of extinction.
“Until recently the US looked like the most divided and dysfunctional democracy in the West,” wrote former Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scottish and fierce opponent of the SNP, on November 19 in New Statesman magazine on the other side of the Atlantic would be excused to point the finger in our direction. “The nationalist activists gathering in the next few days would obviously agree.