Nine months after Boris Johnson led his Conservative Party to an epic election victory in the United Kingdom, surveys are showing an increase in support for Scottish independence — literally, the breakup of the British state.
Enthusiasm for ending Scotland’s 313-year-old union with England has spiked in the past, notably in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, when it looked, briefly, like the Scots were going to vote in favor of leaving the U.K. (The final result was 55 percent to 45 percent against.)
But separatism has traditionally been a minority pursuit in Scotland — the distant, if endlessly debated, dream of activists, writers and radicals. The recent shift in Scotland’s attitude toward self-government has occurred for several reasons, but an important element is Johnson himself.
Campaigning on the simple yet effective pledge to “get Brexit done,” Johnson swept up the bulk of Westminster constituencies in England last December, routing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in its working-class heartlands and radically reshaping the English political landscape.
But in Scotland, where opposition to Brexit is intense and Johnson widely disliked, the Conservatives actually lost seats to the pro-independence, and staunchly Europhile, Scottish National Party (SNP).
Since then, Johnson’s botched attempt to contain the coronavirus pandemic (the U.K. has the highest death rate from covid-19 of any country in Europe) and his willingness to accept a no-deal Brexit (which would see Britain depart the European Union in the absence of a formal trade agreement with Brussels) have compounded Scotland’s anti-Conservative hostility.
As next May’s election to Holyrood — Scotland’s semiautonomous legislature in Edinburgh — moves into view, support for the Tories has continued to flatline; support for the SNP, meanwhile, has reached record-breaking levels.
The roots of Scotland’s nationalist surge lie beyond both Brexit and the personal toxicity of the U.K. Tory leader, however.
The coronavirus crisis arrived in Britain after a decade of spending cuts that seemed designed, by successive Conservative administrations in London, to punish the most marginalized members of society and undermine the U.K.’s postwar welfare state. “High employment and a budget surplus have not reversed austerity, a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda,” a United Nations report into the effects of Tory austerity reforms concluded last year.
Surveying the impact of these reforms, large numbers of Scots seem to have decided that social democracy is no longer possible inside the U.K. and that constitutional change is their only route map to a more progressive economic future.
The SNP, since winning power at Holyrood 13 years ago, has encouraged this view. By using the existing structures of devolved Scottish government, the party has resisted some of the more extreme instances of neoliberal policymaking enacted south of the border.
As a result, although students in England now face some of the highest college tuition fees in the world, students in Scotland can still attend university free; and although patients in England have to pay for pharmaceutical prescriptions over the counter, patients in Scotland enjoy access to some drug treatments without charge.
The pandemic has reinforced the sense that Scotland and England are moving apart politically.
As head of the Scottish government with control over Scottish health and policing policies, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has lifted lockdown restrictions in Scotland at a slower pace than Johnson has in England and been quicker to enforce social distancing rules.
On the one hand, Sturgeon’s decision to deviate from Westminster’s coronavirus strategy has highlighted the limits of Scotland’s political autonomy inside the U.K.; on the other, it has amplified the belief, held by an ever-increasing share of the Scottish public, that Scotland has the capacity to run its own affairs.
Sturgeon, a popular and formidable campaigner, is determined to push the case for a separate Scottish state. On Sept. 1, she announced fresh plans to turn the dream of Scottish independence into reality. If her plans secure majority support at next May’s Holyrood poll, she said, Westminster will have no choice but to authorize a new vote.
Assuming Scottish public opinion continues on its current trajectory, 2021 is going to be a crunch point for the U.K.’s constitutional survival.
The battle lines for the future of the Anglo-Scottish union have been set.
Jamie Maxwell is a Glasgow-based Scottish political journalist and writer.