All change: a crunch year for the constitutional question
It seems hard to imagine now, but there was a period not too long ago when the usual constitutional wrangling was the last thing politicians wanted to get involved in.
“This week, the coronavirus spread to Scotland,” the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Jackson Carlaw, said during First Minister’s Questions on 5 March.
“The First Minister, and the Scottish Government, can be assured that the Scottish Government will have the full and engaged support of myself and all Scottish Conservatives as it deals with the virus.”
Carlaw’s collaborative statement reflected the mood across the Scottish Parliament in the early days of the pandemic.
Responding, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon thanked him and said: “We all have a responsibility to work together to make sure that our response is what the people of Scotland would expect.”
The SNP, having campaigned in the December 2019 general election on rejecting both Boris Johnson and Brexit, talked up their “cast-iron mandate” for a second independence referendum, having won 48 of 59 seats in Scotland. And feeling a kick from a spate of favourable opinion polls in the months since, Sturgeon had confidently asserted that there would be a second independence referendum before the end of 2020 even though the Prime Minister, now packaged as the ‘Minister for the Union’, had already dismissed Sturgeon’s request for the powers to do so.
And one of Sturgeon’s first moves when facing up to the sobering threat of the virus in March was to drop any expectations that the Scottish Government could organise an independence referendum this year, a decision confirmed by constitution secretary Michael Russell on 18 March.
At that time, the UK was taking on the virus with a so-called ‘four nations’ approach. Sturgeon and health secretary Jeane Freeman sat in on COBRA meetings and the chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland met regularly.
Measures, messaging and timing were broadly the same, and on 23 March the UK, in full lockstep, entered lockdown.
But when time came to start lifting restrictions, the nations began to diverge, subtly at first, then sharply. On 10 May, Johnson changed the topline public health message from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’, making no reference to the fact that the alteration applied to England only.
The COBRA committee hasn’t met since that day. Questioned by the Scottish Affairs Committee in June, Freeman spoke of a “vacuum” between governments. It appeared, in the words of SNP MP and committee chair Pete Wishart, that the four nations approach was “dead”.
Questions have dogged both governments on strategy and timing. The UK coronavirus death toll now exceeds 46,000, one of the worst in the world. By 12 August, according to the National Records of Scotland, 4,213 Scots had died of the virus. The Office of National Statistics ranks England and Scotland as two of the top three worst affected countries in Europe in terms of excess deaths.
Responsibility for this apparent mishandling of the crisis has seemingly been laid squarely at Johnson’s feet, however, despite mirror image problems in areas such as testing and access to PPE in Scotland.
Through her daily televised media briefings, Sturgeon has developed a reputation for clarity and a grasp of detail that appears to contrast with the rotating cast of ministers during UK Government briefings. Her phased approach to lifting lockdown is often characterised as cautious and Johnson’s muddled.
A YouGov poll of Scottish voters in August placed Sturgeon’s approval rating at +50 and Johnson’s at -50. The same poll also found support for independence at 53 per cent.
The UK Government is well aware of the threat this seems to pose to the Union. In his summer economic statement, Chancellor Rishi Sunak touted his sweeping interventions in the economy, such as the widely acclaimed Job Retention Scheme.
“No nationalist can ignore the undeniable truth: this help has only been possible because we are a United Kingdom,” he said.
Four UK cabinet ministers have visited Scotland over July and August to underscore the same point.
Meanwhile, the UK Government’s publication of a white paper on the post-Brexit UK ‘internal market’ has sparked outrage and made food and animal welfare standards the most explosive constitutional battleground.
Russell argued that the plans on how goods and standards will be regulated after the UK leaves the EU Common Market risked undermining “the basic foundations of devolution” and would weaken the ability of the Scottish Parliament to make distinctive laws.
The plans – a “naked power grab,” he said – could even lead to powers of the Scottish Parliament being stripped away via the English court system. He vowed that the Scottish Government would fight the UK Government “tooth and nail, in every possible place, with no intention of giving way” if the plans did not change.
Jackson Carlaw, when he resigned as the Scottish Tory leader in July said: “Nothing is more important to me than making the case for Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom … [but] in the last few weeks, I have reached a simple if painful conclusion – that I am not, in the present circumstances, the person best placed to lead that case”.
Douglas Ross, the Moray MP and former Scotland Office minister, has now replaced him, though former leader Ruth Davidson will be filling in during FMQs until Ross has the chance to win a seat in the Scottish elections.
The challenge facing the unionist cause was summed up by Adam Tomkins, who will stand down as a Conservative MSP at the May 2021 election. Responding to Carlaw’s resignation, he told the BBC: “For the first time in Scottish history, independence now looks like it might not be the minority pursuit that it’s always been, but the position of a majority of Scots.”
Much hinges on the outcome of the May election, both for the survival of the Union and for the cause of independence and whether an SNP landslide could force the Prime Minister of the whole of the United Kingdom into bending his intransigence towards granting the Scottish parliament the powers to hold a second referendum.