“In Sickness and in Health…”: The State of the Union between England and Scotland

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On Tuesday the 11th of August, Yougov published a series of polls, one of which put support for Scotland’s independence at 53%, ahead of ‘No’ (on 47%), among Scottish voters. This survey, however, is not an isolated case. It is the latest instance of a rising tide of Scottish nationalism, fuelled to some extent by perceived incompetence in Westminster’s response to the pandemic.

Exhibit A: Personal popularity polls. Nicola Sturgeon enjoys unparalleled support among Scots, with 72% of 1142 Scots over the age of 16 holding a positive view of her work as First Minister. Compare this to the perceptions among the same group of Boris Johnson’s contributions as Prime Minister (20% positive, to 74% negative). The conclusions we can draw from this are pretty obvious: Scotland likes its own leader better than Westminster’s. And that could be all that it is. A momentary rift driven by an abnormally unpopular administration. Except context is everything, and the context tells a different story.

Since the first elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) has increased its share of MSPs by 20%, and have held power since 2011. They succeeded in obtaining an independence referendum in 2014, something that has never happened before in the history of the union. The fact of devolution, granted by Blair’s Labour, would also point to a feeling of detachment from the UK, necessitating reforms to ensure that Scots felt represented by their government. It is worth pointing out that the policy of devolution was agreed upon between the Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Green parties, with input from the Scottish Trade Union Congress, during a period of prolonged Conservative dominance in Westminster.

The results of the independence referendum kept Scotland in the union, demonstrating an apparent lack of desire among Scots to break away from the UK. But then came Brexit.

The morning of the 24th of June 2016 brought jubilations for the Leave campaigners, but it proved a rocky one for Scotland. North of the border, not a single constituency declared for leave. 62% of Scots voted remain. Membership of the European Union had been a key argument from the ‘No’ camp during the 2014 referendum, and now that supporting pillar was gone. The day of the results, Nicola Sturgeon issued a statement making clear that the vote to leave was driven by England and Wales, and promised that a second independence referendum was on the cards. Since then, Ian Blackford (leader of the SNP in Westminster) has been among the foremost critics of Brexit, arguing that it is detrimental to Scotland’s interests.

But that, according to Yougov, appears to have remained solely an irritant in Scotland, much as it has done over the whole of the UK. The present emergency, however, a pandemic of a kind not seen for a hundred years, appears to have made a much deeper impact.

Indeed, it may be exactly as stated earlier; the perception that Scotland’s leader is better equipped to manage its affairs than Westminster may push wavering voters, if not towards independence, then certainly away from the union. Exhibit B, however, is Yougov’s constituency polling for the Scottish Parliament, which would give the SNP an unparalleled landslide in the event of an election being held tomorrow. While that could be driven by the contrasts between the personalities of Sturgeon and Johnson, parliamentary elections are rarely so simple.

Which means that we have to take the notion of separation in values and worldview seriously; we may soon be facing another independence referendum, and this fault-line in the union would be a significant hurdle for the ‘No’ camp.

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Political Editor for the Wessex Scene 2020-2021. Interested in politics, foreign affairs, and just about anything within those to be honest.

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