‘Boris Johnson has vowed never to authorise a 2nd Scottish independence referendum… but that doesn’t make it impossible’ – the analysis of Sam Coates, Deputy Political Editor at Sky News, from St Andrew’s House. It’s from here that the First Minister of the nation of 5 million has held her daily news conferences – just one of many ways in which she has outmanoeuvred Johnson over the last few months and created a growing sense that Scotland will decide to go it alone. Boris shouldn’t stand in Scotland’s way.
In June 2017, Nicola Sturgeon looked rather defeated. She just lost 1/3 of her MPs at Westminster, and her dream of being the woman who forged Scotland’s path to independence was seemingly shattered. Only a politician with Sturgeon’s ability could, 3 years later, have an approval rating of +50 points, compared to the Prime Minister on a dismal -50 (according to YouGov). Her SNP are eyeing an outright majority at next year’s Holyrood elections - a huge achievement if done after 13 years in Government, considering the electoral system is designed to prevent majorities.
Scotland’s largest party is on the march again, with major implications for the United Kingdom as a whole. The country has consistently voted differently to the rest of the UK, whether it was voting to remain in the EU in 2016, or the SNP claiming victory in the last 12 Scottish elections. Ignoring this and preventing a 2nd independence referendum out of principle, especially with the SNP set to win big in 2021, will be the biggest mistake for a Prime Minister and Government with no shortage to choose from.
Disagreement around Scotland’s future is both healthy and expected, Sturgeon herself admits not all SNP voters are ready to back independence. However, there is a growing consensus that Scotland should have the choice of self-determination, and rightly so. There is a harsh irony to hearing the Conservatives argue in favour of the withdrawal from the European Union but preach to Scotland about the ‘immeasurable benefits’ of remaining united. The polls reflect this, with the last 7 showing a persistent majority now in support of independence. The Scottish Conservatives poll numbers are sliding whilst Scottish Labour’s internal bickering and poor leadership is making it increasingly irrelevant.
The harsh reality for Westminster is that the COVID response has given Scots a taste of independence, and they like what they see. There may be little empirical difference between the 2 nations responses, but 60% of the Scottish public trust Sturgeon and her team, whilst just 15% feel the same of Johnson. Throughout the pandemic the First Minister has gained applause for her calm, cautious approach, her willingness to continue the daily news conferences and fronting of her mistakes. Take the A-level results fiasco for example: within a few days the Scottish Government took responsibility for the chaos and put forward a solution. The UK Government, despite having the benefit of hindsight, refused to apologise and instead blamed officials, before U-turning and following Scotland’s lead. Or when Cath Calderwood, Scotland’s CMO, broke lockdown rules, she was out of the job by sunset but when Dominic Cummings, the PMs chief advisor, did the same he stubbornly stayed on.
Throughout the pandemic, the perception has been Sturgeon making decisions in Edinburgh, only for Whitehall to follow her lead a few days later. Perhaps that’s why Sturgeon was recently ranked as the worlds 5th most eloquent leader by experts, alongside the likes of Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern. Her failures have been dwarfed by those of the UK Government, and when contrasted to the growing reputation for incompetence that surrounds Johnson, as put by ‘The Economist’, it’s no wonder that Downing Street is afraid to grant a Section 30 order, allowing for a legal independence referendum to take place.
But the Tories fear that they’re losing the argument North of the boarder is simply not a good enough reason to put the brakes on exercising the purest form of democracy. The SNP are laying the ground work for Indyref 2, pledging to publish draft legislation before the election and having an explicit commitment to holding a vote in their manifesto, and who can blame them? A lot has changed since the last referendum in 2014. Prime Ministers have come and gone, the UK is getting ready to forge a path without the EU, and the world has ground to a halt in the face of a deadly virus. If you want just one indication of just how long ago 2014 feels like, consider this: Nick Clegg was still Deputy Prime Minister back then. A Prime Minister can live through a lot, including being infected with COVID-19, but not the break up of his country. Downing Street knows this, but it would be wiser for them to realise that digging their heels in and refusing a Section 30 order is democratically unacceptable, and makes it more likely that Scots will turn their back on the UK when the time comes.
Nicola Sturgeon won by a landslide in the general election. So did Boris Johnson. She now finds herself on a constitutional collision course with him – his wisest move would be to get out of the way. Once again, the United Kingdom looks rather disunited.
By Afraz Farooq