This is the time of year when new calendars go on sale or are distributed by stores and businesses, little gifts for loyal customers. They are pinned up in kitchens and propped up on desks, with key dates, birthdays and reminders all marked up, holidays planned — do you remember when we could all plan trips?
In Scotland, the date of May 6 will be circled with gusto. The first Thursday in May is polling day, when some four million Scots elect a new government for their parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh. And unlike the rest of the United Kingdom where the voting age remains at 18, in Scotland anyone over 16 years of age can cast a ballot.
By the time that election rolls around, the UK will be out of the European Union, the transition period will have been over five months, and Scots, Northern Irish, Welsh and English alike will be living with the economic consequences of Brexit with or without a trade deal.
If it is to be with a trade deal, it had better happen quickly quick over these coming days. If it is not to be, then all will know whether this week’s direst of warning by the Bank of England governor was just more smoke. Andrew Bailey told parliamentarians in London that failing to reach a free-trade agreement with Brussels would cause more long-term damage to the British economy than coronavirus. The pandemic’s economic woes are dramatic and short-term he said. Brexit? Deeper. More profound. Longer lasting.
The Scots have been no fans of Brexit, voting by some 60 per cent against it four years ago. Opposition to breaking ties with the EU was even stronger than support for maintaining ties with the rest of the UK in the Scotland independence referendum of September 2014. But come May 6, expect more Scots than ever before to demand a second vote on independence — Indyref2 as it is colloquially called.
And in London, it is a date circled in the heaviest of red pens by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. As things stand now, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as chomping at the bit, demanding the PM permit Indyref2. After May 6, those are calls that will only become louder. The Scottish Nationalist Party is on course for a large majority at Holyrood, in no small part because of her leadership during the coronavirus pandemic.
Health is one of the powers ceded to the regional parliaments sitting in Edinburgh, the Senedd in Cardiff and the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont in the southern suburbs of Belfast.
Firmly within the union of four
Welsh voters also choose a new Senadd on May 6 too: if there is a large shift then towards Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalists, something very fundamental is indeed afoot in the UK. But right now, Johnson’s concern is Scotland — and keeping it firmly within the union of four.
Normally, one would expect the PM to be doing everything within his powers to dial down the independence rhetoric north of the border, making every pragmatic move that is as politically prudent as possible to suck oxygen from the separatist cause.
If only. After a zoom meeting with disgruntled Conservative MPs from northern England last week, reports emerged that Johnson described devolution as being a “disaster” in Scotland. No sooner has his comments hit the airwaves than Sturgeon and others lambasted him, displaying utter contempt for Scotland and disparaging its voters. If anything, Sturgeon and the nationalists said, Johnson’s comments showed IndyRef2 was needed all the more urgently.
In Scotland, the Conservatives make up the second-largest grouping sitting in Holyrood, but the wing was quick to distance itself from the PM’s misspeak.
In Wales, Johnson’s comments were met with derision too by Plaid Cymru and other nationalists. And in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein made noises about a need for that guaranteed vote on Irish unity happening sooner rather than later.
Genie is out of the bottle
Johnson has been at pains to suggest that what he meant to say was that the SNP coming to power as a result of devolution was a disaster for Scotland. The genie, though, was out of the bottle and the damage had been done.
For his part, Johnson says his attitude on IndyRef2 remains unchanged. Scottish voters had their say in a once-in-a-generation vote back in 2014 and decided to remain in the UK. Even when Sturgeon is returned come May 6 with a larger majority and what she will say is a very clear mandate for IndyRef2, the power to grant that vote remains the prerogative of the UK government — known in parliamentary language as a “section 30” order.
Over the past week, the renewed debate on devolution is just another headache for a self-isolating Prime Minister in the middle of a pandemic and trying to reach a free trade deal — or not — with Brussels. Even the best jugglers drop a ball once in a while.
But what must be alarming for Conservatives and those who believe that Scotland belongs firmly within the framework of the UK is a series of focus groups reported in great detail by Channel 4 and political researchers. While a majority of Scots rejected independence by 55.3 to 44.7 per cent in 2014, a majority now would support sovereignty. Six years ago, fears over the economy cause many Scots to vote with their head over their heart. Now — and particularly in the wake of the economic hibernation brought by coronavirus and the possible full economic meltdown caused by a no-deal Brexit — there is a general sentiment that things could only get better in an independent Scotland.
It’s all the more reason why a free trade deal with Brussels needs to be done in the coming days. And quickly. December 31 is fast approaching. So too May 6.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign correspondent based in Europe