GUILLERMO ÍÑIGUEZ | October 19, 2020
Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) leader and Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon (C) poses with party members during the party’s general election campaign in Edinburgh on 8 November 2019. GETTY
“Would you support Scottish independence?” In a recent poll by the Ipsos Mori agency, 58% of Scottish voters answered yes. This figure – an all-time high – confirms an increasingly evident trend: that Brexit , and the pandemic for a few months, pose an existential threat to the future of the United Kingdom .
Support for the Scottish government – and therefore for independence – is due in large part to the strong contrast in the management of the coronavirus. The effectiveness shown by the Scottish Prime Minister, Nicola Sturgeon , and her Welsh counterpart, Mark Drakeford , both serious, forceful and conciliatory – has contrasted with the disastrous management of a Boris Johnson that generates more and more doubts within his party. The territorial organization of the United Kingdom – with health powers delegated to the different nations – has accentuated these differences. As the British government wavered, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast were warning of the severity of the virus and imposing stricter measures. While Johnson promised “The best” tracking system in the world, Sturgeon and Drakeford were skeptical, demanding a greater effort from Downing Street.
This has allowed the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) to score a clear point in favor. An independent Scotland, the party hints, would be a serious, efficient and well-managed country; quite the opposite of Johnson’s UK.
The rise of the SNP
To understand the rise of independence, however, we must go back to the 20th century. The SNP was for much of the last century a petty-bourgeois, Presbyterian and white party, characterized by its infighting, as Colin Kidd points out in The New Statesman . It was after the creation of the regional Parliament, through the Scottish Act of 1997, when it adopted a more relevant role at the national level.
Alex Salmond’s victory in the 1990 primary was a turning point. The new leader drew up a long-term strategy, moving away from his bases and courting demographic groups historically distant from independence. His first two targets were the Catholic Church and the various ethnic minorities. The austerity policies of David Cameron’s coalition government , in turn, enabled it to position itself as a Social Democratic alternative, attracting Labor voters uneasy about the dismantling of the welfare state.
The 2014 referendum seemed to halt this rise. Salmond’s deeply identity campaign made it possible for the unionist front – made up of the Cameron-Clegg government and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party – to pose the “no” to independence as the rational and safe option. Salmond’s defeat was incontestable: he received 45% of the vote, resigned, and the Scottish question seemed to be buried for the next generation.
This scenario changed after the general elections of 2015, which certified the collapse of Labour – until then the hegemonic force in Scotland – and the first absolute majority of Sturgeon, with 56 Scottish deputies out of 59 possible. More significant, however, was the tough campaign of the Tories , immortalized by a poster showing Miliband in Sturgeon’s pocket. A Labour triumph, Cameron insisted, would spell the end of Britain: a ” coalition of chaos ” that would allow Miliband access to Downing Street in exchange for a new Scottish referendum. Against all odds, Miliband lost, Cameron won an absolute majority, and the country was plunged into a very different referendum: Brexit.
And it was precisely Brexit that offered the SNP a second chance. Circumstances, Sturgeon proclaimed, had changed: the Scottish people had voiced their opposition, and they would find themselves out of Europe against their will. Only a new referendum, he added, would remedy this injustice. This change of tone was a mistake, according to Chris Deerin , as it rekindled the distrust of an electorate eager for political stability and cost the party, in the 2017 general elections, a third of its seats.
Sturgeon learned from his mistake: he once again distanced himself from nationalism – in 2017, he regretted that his party’s initials included that “difficult” adjective – and focused his efforts on confronting Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement and the nationalist drift of the conservatives. Its effectiveness attracted two new types of voters: the pro-European, who see Scottish independence as the only way to return to the EU, and the so-called “double unionists”: citizens opposed to both Brexit and secession, but who, repelled because of growing Tory chauvinism , they have opted for Sturgeon’s “civic nationalism”.
The disunity of ‘unionism’
Faced with ever-widening secessionism, unionism is fragmented and without a clear vision of the future. The Labour Party is aware that it will not rule again if it does not win in Scotland. Since the 1950s, says Beth Rigby , Labour has never ruled without adding at least 40 seats in the region – it currently has one. Keir Starmer’s crossroads is devilish: supporting a new referendum would mean giving up unionism to conservatives and liberals; to oppose him, to strain relations with the SNP in view of a future government coalition in 2024.
Also the Tories , the first Unionist force , are increasingly cornered. Ruth Davidson’s leadership, who took office in 2011, marked a profound change for a party perceived as outdated, cartoonish and too English to succeed in Scotland. Davidson – young, progressive and homosexual – transformed her image, turning it, according to Kidd, into a party “to which you can vote without risking social ostracism.” In the general elections of 2017, he added 13 seats – 12 more than in 2015 -, saving May’s government and exerting decisive influence over her policies. The arrival of the Eurosceptic right in Downing Street, however, truncated her project and led to his resignation and a deep crisis for her party in Scotland.
Fragile constitutional balance
Beyond the uncertain electoral prospects of unionism , the fight for the post-Brexit division of the powers held by the EU is allowing Sturgeon’s SNP to present itself as a rational alternative to a dogmatic Tory government . Over the past few months, Downing Street has shown its disdain for the precarious conventions that underpin Britain’s ” multi-dimensional constitution .” Johnson’s absolute majority has called into question one of the most important: the so-called Sewel Convention , according to which the Westminster Parliament does not legislate on powers delegated to national parliaments without the consent of the latter.
The best example is perhaps the controversial Internal Market Act , which grants broad powers to the British executive, to the detriment of national parliaments, to harmonize as many powers as it deems necessary in order to establish a “single British market”. This project, says George Peretz in Prospect , represents a turning point in the decentralization process ( devolution ) that began in the 1990s. Johnson’s contempt for the constitutional pact, adds Philip Stephens in the Financial Times , is playing with fire: by underlining England’s “unquestionable supremacy” over other nations, “he is inviting Scotland to leave the Union.”
Despite Downing Street’s refusal to authorize a second referendum, Sturgeon has stood firm, casting the 2021 regional elections as a plebiscite. In turn, her apparent pragmatism has managed to placate the most disruptive wing of his party, led by the national deputy Joanna Cherry , who asks to adopt the Catalan route . For the moment, the Merkelism of a prudent Sturgeon is imposed , willing to manage the times and aware of the mistakes made by the Catalan government in 2017. The dissenting voices, however, are growing .
The end of the UK?
Is the end of Britain inevitable, as Stephens concludes? The Scottish question seems to point in that direction. A – more than likely – absolute majority of the SNP in 2021 would send an incontestable message, and could put Johnson on the ropes. Likewise, a rough Brexit would further strain the relationship between Edinburgh and London.
Faced with this scenario, a large part will depend on the reconfiguration of two camps – the unionist and the secessionist – less binary than in 2014. A Labour Party that reconnects with the Scottish electorate, posing as the only social democratic alternative to Johnson, could rebalance the balance in the left in favor of unionism . The chauvinistic drift of the conservatives, in turn, could be exploited by the liberals , attracting the “double unionists ” and preventing their approach to secessionism. And, of course, a rise in the SNP’s disruptive wing could undermine the image of unity and savoir faire that Sturgeon values so highly.
For the moment, however, circumstances are in favor of the SNP. In the middle of the second wave of the pandemic, faced with an overwhelmed government and with the end of the transition period in sight, nothing seems to indicate that its upward trend will be interrupted. If the pro-independence social base widens, and Downing Street persists in its hostility towards Scottish territorial autonomy, the future of the United Kingdom will be increasingly in danger.