Among the many casualties of the coronavirus lockdown were events marking the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, a 1320 document signed by the lords and clerics of Scotland that includes the stirring line: “For so long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will never in any degree be subject to the dominion of the English.”

But disappointment among Scottish nationalists at the delay to celebrations is far outweighed by growing confidence that the end is nearing for the three-century-old union with England, a union they argue inevitably means domination by a much larger neighbour.

Just six years after Scotland voted No to independence, opinion polls suggest that if a second referendum on the issue was held, a majority would now back leaving the UK.

The shifting polls have dismayed Scottish supporters of continued union and sent shockwaves through a Conservative UK government suddenly scrambling to find ways to shore up UK unity even as it grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and looming introduction of post-Brexit border controls with the EU.

Chart showing how support for Scottish independence has changed according to FT analysis of 118 polls since the first referendum on the topic. In 2020, a clear lead for the Yes vote has emerged after a prolonged period of the No vote polling higher

Brexit’s unpopularity in Scotland and a widespread perception among voters that Edinburgh has responded better to Covid-19 than London appears to be tipping the balance toward a separation that would strip the UK of a third of its landmass and 8 per cent of its population.

The most recent survey, conducted by YouGov, this month found that Scottish voters willing to express an opinion would support independence by 53 per cent to 47 per cent, a result that echoes the findings in recent months of rival pollster Panelbase.

John Curtice, a political expert at Strathclyde university, describes the polling as a “major moment” in Scottish political opinion. “It’s the first time that the Yes side have been consistently ahead in a series of opinion polls conducted months apart,” he adds.

An anti-Conservative government, pro-Scottish independence and anti-Brexit protest outside Holyrood in February
An anti-Conservative government, pro-Scottish independence and anti-Brexit protest outside Holyrood in February © Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty

Moment the ‘penny dropped’

The threat was spelt out by Michael Gove, UK cabinet office minister, on July 21 as he addressed the UK government’s first face-to-face cabinet meeting in months. Mr Gove, the adopted son of an Aberdeen fish processor, gave his colleagues a passionate exposition on the risks facing the union and why they should care. He ran through the threat, as he saw it, posed by first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National party and mapped out a series of ideas for trying to counter the separatist trend.

The address by Mr Gove, backed by polling evidence presented by Isaac Levido, a key adviser, was described by an onlooker as the “penny-dropped moment”.

“I think some ministers had, until that point, seen the issue as a bit of a distraction,” says one person at the cabinet meeting. “Michael made it clear that while Covid and Brexit were huge issues, the government would be unlikely to survive the break-up of the union.”

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, was among the first to speak after Mr Gove’s call to arms. “I now understand why this is so important,” he said. 

Unionists face the increasing likelihood that the pro-independence SNP, currently in minority government in Scotland, will win an outright majority in the devolved parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh in elections next May.

The SNP remains far ahead of all its pro-union rivals, despite increasing criticism of its record after 13 years in power in Edinburgh. This month’s YouGov poll — conducted just as the SNP government was coming under attack for the bungled moderation system that replaced school exams cancelled because of coronavirus — suggested the SNP could win a 57 per cent share of Holyrood constituency voting.

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Michael Gove gives evidence to the Scottish parliament’s Europe and external affairs committee on negotiations on the future relationship with the EU, in a virtual broadcast
Michael Gove gives evidence to the Scottish parliament’s Europe and external affairs committee on negotiations on the future relationship with the EU, in a virtual broadcast © Ken Jack/Getty
(L-R) Advocate General for Scotland Richard Keen QC, Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack, Iain Stewart MP and David Duguid MP outside Queen Elizabeth House, the new UK Government Hub in Edinburgh
(L-R) Advocate-general for Scotland Richard Keen QC, Scotland secretary Alister Jack, Iain Stewart MP and David Duguid MP outside Queen Elizabeth House, the new UK Government Hub in Edinburgh © Jane Barlow/PA

Ben Jackson, associate professor of modern history at Oxford university, says there has been “enormous complacency” among union supporters since the 2014 referendum, in which voters rejected independence by 55 per cent to 45 per cent. He adds that the union cause has been undermined by condescension towards the nationalist side, which has in turn blunted efforts to find persuasive counter arguments.

“People who are opposed to Scottish independence think it is a nativist, ephemeral, emotional creed,” says Mr Jackson, “[but] it is actually more complicated than that.”

While the Declaration of Arbroath, for example, pitted emerging Scottish nationhood directly against English rule, modern nationalist thinkers have focused more on the medieval lords’ accompanying insistence that they would drive out King Robert the Bruce if he failed to defend national “freedom”. Some see that stance as establishing a tradition of popular sovereignty in Scotland at variance with English ideas of parliamentary supremacy.

The SNP has been able to tap into widespread discontent with perceived failings of UK democracy such as the unelected House of Lords and Scotland’s inability to block unpopular policies such as Brexit, which voters in Scotland rejected in the 2016 EU referendum by 62 per cent to 38 per cent.

“The main argument that Scottish nationalists make for independence is that if you have a separate Scottish state, the government will be one elected by Scottish voters,” Mr Jackson says. It is a claim with particular resonance when, as now, the UK is led by a Conservative party unpopular in Scotland, he says. “In that sense the argument is a democratic one . . . a government that is elected by Scottish voters will likely have a more left-of-centre policy profile.”

Boris Johnson holds crabs caught on the Carvela at Stromness Harbour, Scotland, in July
Boris Johnson holds crabs at Stromness Harbour, Scotland, in July © Robert Perry/WPA Pool/Getty

Dashed hopes

On a chilly afternoon in Arbroath, a windswept eastern coastal town that is home to the ruined abbey where the Declaration was written, independence supporters approached by the Financial Times insisted that leaving the UK was a matter of democracy not history.

Mark Campbell, who makes Arbroath smokies, a local smoked haddock delicacy, says independence would allow Scotland to make more of its own decisions. “I think there is quite a difference in the economic needs of Scotland and south-east England,” Mr Campbell says.

Property developer John Carswell believes the UK government is too hostile to immigrants and too keen on nuclear weapons, noting that the last time the Conservatives won a Scotland-wide election was in the 1950s. “We are fed up of being ruled by people we never voted for,” he says.

To counter such arguments, Mr Gove told colleagues that while the devolution settlement that created and empowered the Scottish parliament was “messy” and at times incoherent, the Conservative government had to work more harmoniously with the Sturgeon administration.

While Nicola Sturgeon’s poll ratings have soared during the coronavirus crisis, YouGov polling gave Boris Johnson an approval rating in Scotland of minus 51
While Nicola Sturgeon’s poll ratings have soared during the coronavirus crisis, YouGov polling gave Boris Johnson an approval rating in Scotland of minus 51 © Jeff J Mitchell/Pool/Reuters

The proposal was a reminder that one of the strongest historical arguments in Scotland for retaining the 1707 merger with England was that it permits and preserves distinctively Scottish elements of public life such as law and education.

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The architects of devolution in the 1990s — the first Labour government under Tony Blair — hoped it would kill demands for independence and, by respecting Scotland’s place in a union of equals, blunt complaints that England always calls the shots. But those hopes have been dashed.

Boris Johnson shot down Mr Gove’s suggestion that Ms Sturgeon might on special occasions attend cabinet meetings. “He doesn’t see Sturgeon as an equal,” says one minister. The prime minister’s early coronavirus briefings were often only relevant to England, with Mr Johnson apparently even unwilling to mention different lockdown policies in force in the devolved administrations. And the UK government has also waved aside objections from Scotland and Wales on its plans for a post-Brexit single UK market that experts say will give London greater say over devolved matters.

The Sunak factor

The most visible sign of Mr Gove’s new union strategy has been a sudden procession of UK government ministers to Scotland, with Mr Johnson leading the way by visiting northern Scotland and Orkney on July 23. The prime minister is also reportedly holidaying in Scotland.

The visits are intended to show the UK government routinely engaged in Scottish affairs, but face a key problem — Tory ministers at Westminster are not just seen as remote, they are also hugely unpopular.

While Ms Sturgeon’s poll ratings have soared during the coronavirus crisis, YouGov polling gave Mr Johnson an approval rating in Scotland of minus 51. Scottish Tories privately admit the prime minister — an Old Etonian whose penchant for Brussels-bashing and Brexit is anathema to many Scots — is an electoral liability. Mr Gove’s rating was minus 57 while Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, was on minus 69.

Demonstrators gather to greet Boris Johnson as the prime minister visits the Orkney Islands in July
Demonstrators gather to greet Boris Johnson as the prime minister visits the Orkney Islands in July © Robert Perry/Getty
Rishi Sunak on a visit to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute this month
Rishi Sunak on a visit to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute this month © Jeff J Mitchell/PA

The exception in Mr Johnson’s team is Mr Sunak, whose willingness to splash cash to protect jobs during the Covid crisis — including hundreds of thousands in Scotland — has helped to earn him a net approval rating of plus 7. “Rishi is our only asset in Scotland,” says one Tory adviser. “The only question is how we use him and how often we can get him up there.”

Visits by Mr Sunak highlight one of the most effective pro-union arguments during the 2014 referendum: that leaving the UK would be expensive and create huge fiscal and economic risks. It is an argument since reinforced by the collapse in oil prices and reliance on central bank financing to soften the impact of coronavirus.

Paul Morgan, an Arbroath supermarket worker, voted to leave the UK in 2014, but says the SNP’s referendum forecasts have since been “completely blown out of the water”. Now Mr Morgan is undecided, with his heart calling for independence but his head more cautious. “It might be a blessing that Scotland did say No,” he adds.

But Sir John cautions against assuming coronavirus spending will boost support for the UK, not least since Mr Sunak will be vulnerable to criticism if employment supports, for example, are judged to have been withdrawn too soon. “Insofar as the [pro-union] side are saying ‘look at us, we are rescuing the Scottish economy’, well the Scottish economy better be rescued,” Sir John says. “Unionism needs to work out its arguments.”

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In the cabinet presentation, Mr Gove accepted that saving the union had to be more than about money and that emotional and historical levers had to be pulled to remind Scots of their common inheritance with the rest of the UK.

Iain Anderson, an Aberdonian co-founder of the advisory group Cicero/AMO who is close to Mr Gove, says the UK needs a “detailed plan for the union”, one that can “excite and inspire and be as much about society as it is about economics”.

The Conservatives have dismissed calls from the opposition Labour party and others to create a more federalised UK or reform institutions such as the House of Lords, while struggling to come up with any new vision for the UK likely to win over independence waverers.

Nicola Sturgeon meets young people with experience of care  in February
Nicola Sturgeon meets young people with experience of care work in February © Jane Barlow/Getty

Mr Johnson’s team insists that there will be no second independence referendum in the life of this UK parliament at least. The stance is enshrined in the 2019 Tory manifesto, which argues that it is justified by Ms Sturgeon and other SNP leaders’ billing of the 2014 vote as a “once in a generation” event.

But refusing a vote could alienate moderate Scots if the SNP wins a majority in the May elections to the devolved parliament on a clear manifesto of another referendum. Privately many Tories admit that the position is unsustainable in the long run, saying it would fuel Scottish grievance and make independence more likely.

For now there is a whiff of desperation about some UK government ideas for shoring up the union. Mr Johnson is looking at new ways to persuade Scots of the economic benefits of being part of it, including reviving plans to put Union flag logos on infrastructure projects north of the border. The UK government plans to disperse structural funds — it says it will match the funding previously allocated by Brussels but wants to control how the money is spent — giving it the opportunity to replace the EU flag on new works.

But, as senior UK government officials admit, it would be naive to think such moves would transform the debate. A future referendum will be fought on issues of identity and national self-determination, with few voters unlikely to be swayed by a few flags on bridges or roads. The EU insisted that its flag was emblazoned on projects in poorer parts of the UK like Cornwall and Wales, both places voted for Mr Johnson’s and Mr Gove’s Brexit project.

“It seems a bit ironic,” says Mr Jackson. “That the people who got where they are by ruthlessly prosecuting an argument about democratic sovereignty in the face of the EU putting flags on various bits of infrastructure, now seem to think that if they put the British flag on various bits of infrastructure it will ward off arguments about democratic sovereignty.”

Via Financial Times