The Scottish independence debate is being reshaped by the pandemic

There was a moment, five days before 2014’s historic vote on Scottish independence, when the contest came alive. Electrified by an opinion poll that put the rival camps neck-and-neck, supporters of both sides poured onto the streets in a deluge of democratic fervor. A carnival atmosphere engulfed Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, as activists made their final, thunderous push for victory. The referendum was clinched, days later, by the unionists.

Today, my hometown feels a little different. Buchanan Street — the onetime epicenter of “IndyRef” activism — is shuttered and silent. The periodic protests against London rule have ceased. Scotland, like much of the world, is confined by covid-19.

Yet, for all its practical prohibitions, the pandemic has ignited fresh debate around Scottish independence, forcing both sides to rework arguments upended by Britain’s public health catastrophe.

The coronavirus outbreak has been a disaster for Britain. The country trails only the United States in mortality, with more than 37,000 (perhaps many more) dead. As is often the case in times of adversity, the crisis has galvanized a sense of solidarity between the United Kingdom’s four nations, each facing off with the same implacable enemy, each indebted to the heroes of the National Health Service.

But empathy and understanding needn't necessitate political union. Sovereign states can be close and compassionate friends. And, as many Scots have rightly asked, what value is kinship when it comes at the cost of mismanagement?

With shortcomings in shielding the elderly, a tardy approach to mass testing and an utter failure to procure sufficient personal protective equipment, the British government’s coronavirus response has been roundly rebuked — not least by Scottish nationalists. Would an independent Scotland have handled the crisis better? Nimbler than their larger neighbors, small, unitary states do seem to have weathered the storm comparatively well, if per-capita deaths are an accurate measure.

For now, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s pro-independence first minister, has managed to maintain her reputation as resolute, meticulous and emotionally intelligent. Her sharp, no-nonsense approach has won plaudits with the public: Three-quarters of Scots polled in late April said Sturgeon’s team had handled the crisis well. Far fewer — just 47 percent — extended that praise to the British government, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

This divide widened when Johnson decided to ease lockdown rules in England without prior consultation with authorities in Scotland (or, for that matter, Wales or Northern Ireland). Sturgeon was quick to dismiss his new — and widely derided — “Stay Alert” message, a move that underscored both her personal authority and the core principles of self-governance.

And then there is the Dominic Cummings affair. Whether or not Johnson’s chief aide flouted his own rules by sidestepping government orders to stay at home and driving 260 miles to self-isolate outside of London, the debacle has riled an awful lot of Scots incensed at the apparent double standard.

That, of course, isn’t to say that Sturgeon hasn’t suffered her own scandals. Scotland’s former chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood confessed to a similar infraction as Cummings, and Sturgeon has been assailed for an alleged coverup of an early covid-19 outbreak in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital (though she has maintained all procedures were followed). And because the Scottish government has enjoyed significant autonomy in fighting the virus, it must account for some truly fatal errors — particularly with the nation’s care homes, 60 percent of which have been blighted by the virus.

In the independence debate, these controversies really cut through; confidence in the government is vital to anyone weighing up constitutional change. But for many voters, there’s something that matters more: money.

The coronavirus has shown the British state’s formidable financial clout, dredging up stratospheric sums to keep businesses afloat. Without the United Kingdom’s deep pockets, would Scotland have been able to safeguard jobs so fulsomely? We may never know.

The imminent fiscal fate of the U.K. economy is more obvious. A deep recession — perhaps the deepest ever — rumbles nearer every day, experts warn. For Scottish nationalists, that’s bad news. In 2014, their efforts to assuage economic fears fell flat, and that was when times were good. Today, oil and gas sales — cornerstones of Scotland’s wealth — have slumped, while the nation’s budget deficit remains high.

Facing a financial crisis unfathomable in scale, Sturgeon and co. will surely struggle to justify separation from the United Kingdom, an enterprise most agree will be costly in the short term at least. Yet Brexit carried comparable economic health warnings, and it won the day. Heart over head, passion before policy, emotion above economics — that’s how insurgent campaigns prevail, and that’s why the case for Scottish independence shouldn’t be discounted, financial meltdown or not.

So, as the pivotal 2021 Scottish Parliament election approaches — when nationalism is next tested at the ballot box — expect the conversation to be fixed firmly on covid-19. Whatever happens, Scottish independence will now inevitably be viewed through the prism of pandemic.

Alasdair Lane is a freelance journalist based in Glasgow, Scotland.

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