Boris Johnson’s first trip to Scotland since last December’s general election was intended to douse support for the nation breaking away from the rest of the UK. Instead, the prime minister’s flying visit this week highlighted his growing status as a recruiting sergeant for Scottish independence.
Analysts said Mr Johnson’s tough line on Brexit and perceptions that he has mishandled the coronavirus crisis help to explain why polls since June suggest that more voters in Scotland support independence than want to maintain the three century-old union with England.
Even in the relatively safe political territory of Moray, east of Inverness, which voted Conservative in the last two UK general elections, many voters contrast Mr Johnson’s record on Covid-19 unfavourably with that of Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National party.
“I’m not an SNP person, but I do think that she has done very well on this coronavirus,” said Lesley Gill, a retired office worker in the town of Elgin, adding that Mr Johnson’s message seemed “muddled”.
“Nicola’s dealt with it much better than Boris,” agreed Philip Schonken, a teacher in the nearby town of Lossiemouth.
The prime minister’s defenders point out that Scotland’s policies in areas that it controls, such as health, have been broadly similar to those of the UK government in England — and with similar results. Scotland’s overall Covid-19 death rate is only slightly below that of England and among the highest in the world.
But when Ms Sturgeon has taken a different line, for example in pursuing a more cautious easing of lockdown and setting a goal of effective elimination of the virus, polls suggest voters approve. And many credit the first minister with a consistency and clarity of messaging that has eluded Mr Johnson.
Mark Diffley, an Edinburgh-based polling consultant, said the pandemic had shone a spotlight on the Scottish government’s use of its devolved powers and polls showed even voters who support the union mostly thought Ms Sturgeon was doing a better job than the prime minister. “The way he is seen as having handled the virus is hugely beneficial to the cause of independence,” Mr Diffley said.
The shifting polls have fuelled optimism among supporters of leaving the UK that defeat in 2014’s independence referendum will prove only a temporary setback. Elections for the Scottish parliament next May now look likely to deliver an increased pro-independence majority and a renewed mandate for the SNP to demand a second plebiscite from Mr Johnson on the issue.
Tom Devine, one of Scotland’s most eminent historians, this week declared that the union was in its “most fragile condition” since Jacobite prince Charles Edward Stuart led an army of kilted Highlanders into England in 1745 in a bid to seize the throne.
The road to separation hardly looks smooth, however. The pandemic has muted but not dispelled growing tensions within the SNP over questions of independence strategy and other issues such as gender recognition.
Following his acquittal in March of attempted rape and sexual assault, former first minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond made clear he intends to force a reckoning with former comrades he accuses of fabricating charges against him for political purposes.
Such claims will be in the spotlight when a Scottish parliamentary committee starts taking evidence this year in its inquiry into the handling of the complaints against the former first minister, with Ms Sturgeon among party and government officials expected to give evidence under oath.
The first minister also faces the vital question of how to force a second independence referendum. Mr Johnson has promised not to approve one, noting that the 2014 plebiscite was billed as a “once in a generation” event.
Ms Sturgeon insists any independence vote must be beyond legal challenge, but pressure from impatient comrades will grow for her to consider an unauthorised referendum of the sort conducted by Spain’s Catalan nationalists in 2017.
The SNP also faces questions about the economics of independence. The collapse of oil prices and the costs of coronavirus have made clear that Scotland would have faced huge difficulties if it had voted to leave the UK in 2014.
Despite their approval for Ms Sturgeon’s recent record, Ms Gill in Elgin and Mr Schonken both said they remained opposed to independence on economic grounds. “I honestly don’t think Scotland could go it alone,” Ms Gill said, citing the furlough scheme that Westminster credits with helping to save 900,000 jobs in Scotland.
The SNP must also contend with growing criticism of its record after 13 years in government. Scotland is declining in key international education rankings, a flagship hospital construction has suffered extended delays, and there is a protracted furore about a contract for two ferries that have cost £200m but remain far from finished.
For some Scots, however, Mr Johnson’s signature project of Brexit, and his hardline approach to it, is changing the constitutional calculation. Scotland voted 62 per cent to 38 per cent to remain in the EU in 2016 and many Scots resent being forced to leave the bloc and worry about Brexit’s economic implications.
“I wish we could stay in the EU and I almost think that being in the EU is a bigger thing than being in the UK,” said Jill, a whisky industry employee who declined to give her full name because of political sensitivities at her workplace. “I wasn’t pro-independence, but I definitely think it is more of an option now,” she said.
Polls show some voters who rejected independence in 2014 but also opposed Brexit have now switched to supporting leaving the UK — a trend Mr Diffley said would be fuelled if the withdrawal transition period ends in December without a trade deal that preserves broad access to the EU market.
But Mr Johnson remains under pressure from Brexiters not to compromise on his negotiating red lines. “The position could get trickier for the prime minister,” Mr Diffley said. “He is walking a tightrope.”