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Disunited Kingdom: Is it too late to save the Union?

Boris Johnson meets troops setting up a vaccination centre in Castlemilk. Picture: Jeff Mitchell/PA

Disunited Kingdom: Is it too late to save the Union?

When Boris Johnson visited Scotland a few months before the 2019 General Election, his itinerary took him to Peterhead fish market where he posed for photographs with smiling workers.

Even without the social distancing measures that have become so much a part of daily life, it’s hard to imagine him getting a similar reception this time around.

Late last month, the Prime Minister was forced to announce a £23m support package for the fishing industry amid protests from those who said new border controls had severely disrupted exports, bringing them to the brink of financial ruin.

Indeed, while his association with Brexit has benefitted him politically in England, to many north of the Border, he has become a symbol of a political system where you vote for one thing and get another. 

Johnson will be happy to be remembered by posterity as the prime minister who finally took Britain out of the European Union, but he doesn’t want the dubious distinction of presiding over the breakup of the UK.

The Prime Minister’s most recent trip to Scotland was all about highlighting the UK Government’s only real pandemic success story – the vaccine rollout.

Johnson toured the Lighthouse Laboratory at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow before travelling to vaccine company Valneva in Livingston which has begun manufacturing a yet-to-be-approved COVID jab.

The trip was announced just days after polling for The Sunday Times found new levels of unhappiness at the status quo not just in Scotland, but in Northern Ireland and Wales, too.

In Scotland, the poll found that 49 per cent of respondents back independence compared to 44 per cent against – a margin of 52 per cent to 48 per cent if the undecideds are excluded.

But while the polling saw many in London appear to finally sit and up and take notice, it by no means came as a shock to those who have been paying attention.

In fact, every poll since last June has shown Yes ahead of No amid unhappiness over not just Brexit, but the handling of the pandemic.

John Curtice, the respected professor of politics at Strathclyde University, believes it is perceptions over the handling of the crisis which are now driving support for Yes.

“The rise in support for independence during 2020 into 2021 has occurred amongst both Leave and Remain voters, therefore, it’s not Brexit that’s doing it,” he says.

He believes there are two pieces of circumstantial evidence which point towards the pandemic being the root cause, namely the rise in support since last summer and the fact many people who voted No in the 2014 referendum appear to think an independent Scotland would’ve handled the crisis better.

“Most of the people who say Scotland would’ve handled the pandemic better are already convinced nationalists…but there is a minority – 20 per cent it looks like – of people who voted No in 2014 who think we might have done a bit better,” he says.

Curtice says this is based on a perception that Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic has been better than her counterpart in London, but it’s a perception that could yet change as the months pass by.

Nevertheless, it helps explain the thinking behind the Prime Minister’s trip to Scotland and why UK Government ministers such as Health Secretary Matt Hancock suddenly began talking about the vaccination programme – the one bright spot amid the current gloom – as a “resoundingly powerful” argument for the Union. 

The latest polling came as Mike Russell, cabinet secretary for the constitution, set out the SNP’s new road map to independence.

The 11-point plan says that if the SNP wins May’s Holyrood elections, it will again request a Section 30 order from the UK Government, allowing it to hold a second independence referendum. It argues that in such circumstances there could be “no moral or democratic justification for denying that request”.

Yet it looks as if that’s exactly what the UK Government will do.

Russell warns that any attempt to use legal action to block a referendum would be “vigorously opposed” by the SNP.

But it remains unclear just what recourse the nationalists would have should the UK Government refuse their request to hold indyref2.

In an interview on BBC Radio Scotland, Russell refused to be drawn on what Plan B might look like. 

“You can either have democracy or you can have dictatorship, you can’t have both,” he said.

“If Boris Johnson wants to be a dictator who says other people’s votes don’t matter, Scotland doesn’t matter, Scotland isn’t a nation, that is a position which cannot hold because it goes so much against the views of the people of Scotland.”

Asked if there were any legal options open should the Section 30 request be refused, Russell said: “There are many options. I don’t want to go into the detail of them…as we move forward, they will all become clear. 

“What we have to have is a legal route to keep moving. That means that any referendum has to be legal, above board and legitimate – that’s what we’re going for. As we go forward, our intention is to deliver and try to be faithful to what the people of Scotland ask us to do.”

With no viable Plan B in sight, Curtice believes the SNP could opt for “Plan C”, essentially resurrecting their old position that a vote for them is a vote for independence.

“It used to be SNP policy that if they won a majority of the MPs at Westminster or the MSPs at Holyrood, they would regard that as a mandate to pursue independence,” he says.

“The reason they changed their policy (in favour of holding a referendum) was because they were trying to say to people that they could safely vote SNP without running the risk that they were voting for independence. 

“If you look at what happened in 2011, 38 per cent of those people who were in favour of devolution rather than independence voted for the SNP. Until very recently, the SNP have been dependent on the support of people who were not in favour of independence. A crucial thing that’s changed is that’s no longer true.”

Curtice says that if the polls are right, the level of support for independence is such that a referendum is no longer “electorally necessary” to convince voters to back the SNP.

He says: “Given the current level of support for independence, the SNP could go into an election and say a vote for us is a vote for independence and it doesn’t look as if it would make a difference to their level of support.”

Regardless of the merits of any Plan B or C, there does now appear to be a growing realisation among some unionists that the status quo is no longer working.

“I believe the choice is now between a reformed state and a failed state,” former Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote in The Daily Telegraph last month.

Brown, who is leading Labour’s UK-wide constitutional convention, which was announced by Keir Starmer in December, said: “Battered by COVID-19, threatened by nationalism, and uncertain what the promise of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ adds up to, the United Kingdom must urgently rediscover what holds it together and sort out what is driving us apart.”

Of course, growing separatist sentiment isn’t just an existential threat to the UK but to the Labour party itself.

One of the candidates for Scottish Labour’s upcoming leadership contest, Monica Lennon, has declared her support for adding an option for further devolution – so-called “devo max” – to the ballot paper in the event of a second independence referendum.

“Conversations about independence and the future of Scotland in the Union won’t go away,” she says. 

“I would love nothing more than for the conversation to move away from the constitution, but Scottish Labour has tried to sit that one out and it hasn’t worked for us.

“If we believe there’s a case for more powers to come to the Scottish Parliament, let’s argue for them.”

One possible concern for Labour, however, could be the level of support for the devo max option.

Polling by Panelbase suggests the popularity of this halfway house has fallen since the referendum in 2014.

Asked to choose between independence, the status quo or “further significant devolution of all financial matters”, only 17 per cent of voters (and just seven per cent of Yes supporters) plumped for the third option.

While the path ahead remains unclear, the one certainty is that the constitution will continue to dominate our politics for a good while yet. Polling suggests the Prime Minister’s trips up north may only prove to push support one way.  

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