British prime minister Boris Johnson is having a tough time. North of the UK border, it is Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, who calls the shots.
She tells Scots whether they can go to work, travel, or meet friends and relatives. Under a constitutional settlement designed 20 years ago to “kill nationalism stone dead,” health policy was devolved to the constituent nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Today nationalism is alive and kicking.
Brexit, it is true, was instrumental in putting Scottish independence back on the agenda. Scots voted almost two to one to remain in the European Union. (As ever, the nationalists conveniently forget that more than a third of their supporters voted to leave.) But it’s the health crisis that has brought the crisis to fore.
For one thing, Johnson’s personality is a concern. His U-turns and unmerited boasts of “world beating” policies play badly. Last week, he visited Scotland to highlight the undoubted success of the UK vaccination program.
According to local Unionists, the prime minister’s tone was all wrong. “He keeps telling us how grateful we all should be,” one veteran of the 2014 independence referendum tells me.
These communication failures matter: Recent opinion polls have shown that. So what can the UK government do to turn the nationalist tide?
The SNP is likely to win big against the demoralised forces of the Conservative and Labour parties in Scottish elections set for May. Sturgeon will then demand another referendum. If Johnson refuses it, she’ll challenge him in court. The radical wing of her party even threatens a Catalan-style “wildcat” referendum if it loses the case.
Recent polls, however, show that an overwhelming majority of Scots wants to avoid any independence campaign before Covid-19 is suppressed. The Scottish Tory leader says Unionists should boycott any illegal poll in any case.
So Johnson could play for time and deny the SNP a referendum, perhaps hoping that a murky vendetta between Sturgeon and her predecessor as leader, Alex Salmond could bring her down.
However, just saying no to a vote has its drawbacks. Angry nationalist sentiment will only increase and Sturgeon’s defiance may do serious damage. Last week she provided a foretaste when she appeared to side with Brussels against London in the row over AstraZeneca’s vaccine supplies to the continent.
Various schemes for constitutional reform have been floated by the opposition Labour Party to take the heat off the independence debate — one eye-catching plan suggests a federal UK. Such tinkering pleases the high-minded but it won’t appease those for whom independence is an act of faith.
A constitutional commission usually takes years to report, in any case, so the nationalists will call it out as a delaying tactic. Even if a new settlement were cobbled together quickly, the SNP would pocket any new powers and still come back for more.
Sooner or later, I would hazard, a referendum will be conceded if the popular demand is there. Canada found that it took two votes to kill off Quebec Libre separatism, the second time by a very narrow margin indeed.
Warnings of national bankruptcy
The arguments will be fierce and Johnson isn’t the man to make them. To win, Unionists will have to go local. Scotland’s non-nationalist party leaders will have to put aside their differences and make the emotional as well as rational case for carrying on 300 years of multi-nationality and open borders.
Identity politics aren’t wholly amenable to reason. The heart can rule the head. Just ask those UK voters who ignored a previous Conservative government’s warnings of national bankruptcy and chose to leave the EU. The sky didn’t fall on their heads, as prophesied, but neither did they enter the promised sunlit uplands. That result was encouragement enough for the SNP.
An influential wing of the Unionists wants to learn the lessons of the EU referendum. Had the leave campaign been forced to fight on the terms of the “Hard Brexit” eventually negotiated between London and Brussels, wavering voters might have opted to remain. The dreamers were aided by fuzziness about the true costs of quitting the single market.
The SNP have taken a similarly relaxed approach to the details, publishing a plan for independence last week that still didn’t settle how a Scottish currency would work.
There lies its major weakness. London should only negotiate the terms of a divorce deal with the nationalists that can be put to the people of Scotland in a referendum. The just-about-managing floating voters who support independence in their hearts but vote with their wallets might tip the balance to the Union.
No battleplan remains intact once contact is made with the enemy, and this one is not ideal. But at least it is a plan. Johnson had better find his own strategy fast.
Martin Ivens is an editor and political commentator