That the UK’s union of four nations is under strain is not new to anyone who has been paying attention. But the combined impacts of Brexit, Covid-19 and the Conservative government under Boris Johnson are driving an increasing wedge between Scotland and the rest of the UK – or, more accurately, between Scotland and England.
Two recent Panelbase polls have put support for independence in Scotland at 54%. Other polls earlier in the year also indicated backing for independence pushing past the 50% mark.
Many commentators focus on whether the UK will survive its current fracturing as a state. Some speculate whether Irish reunification might precede not follow Scottish independence, others muse about the political, social and cultural, as well as economic, case for the union today and why it is mostly not well made. Meanwhile, the Tories, enmeshed in ideological denial, pretend there is no problem – ‘global Britain’ is on the rise. And Labour, under Keir Starmer, continues to talk the language of federalism without ever quite, so far, explaining what that would look like and what problems it would solve.
Scotland’s Problem with England
Looked at from a Scottish perspective, it is rather clear that Scotland has an England problem – perhaps a helpful perspective for understanding why the union is under strain. English voters, with some help from Wales, voted for Brexit. English voters then put Boris Johnson into power: the Tories, despite their 80 seat majority, not only losing seats in Scotland at the general election last December but only winning a majority of the votes in England, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all heading in different political directions. The SNP increased their number of MPs at that election to 48 out of Scotland’s 59 seats, and Labour fell back to having just one Labour MP again. And on current polls the SNP looks set to do very well at the Holyrood elections next May, returning a larger number of MSPs than now – though there’s much water to flow under the bridge before then.
In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, there is currently a relatively muted political debate in Scotland. But the Coronavirus crisis is also deepening England-Scotland divisions. Nicola Sturgeon fatefully went along with Johnson’s disastrously late lockdown. Yet the divergences are now getting stronger. Johnson, in his implicit role of first minister of England, has stopped daily press conferences on the crisis (that were anyway headed up by a incoherently changing cast of ministerial characters) – and eased lockdown substantially ahead of Scotland. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon continues to head up a daily press conference, with her approval ratings, for managing the crisis, hitting 74% (in a recent Sunday Times Panelbase poll of Scottish voters) to Johnson’s 21%.
Scottish deaths – as in Wales and Northern Ireland – are now very low, often zero on a daily basis, while England is still at shocking levels of up to 150 deaths in a day, with estimated infection rates lower in Scotland too. From 10th July, masks are mandatory in shops in Scotland – and cafes and restaurants will only open indoors from 15th July. The sense of two different trajectories between England and Scotland is currently very strong (though how this plays out in the weeks and months ahead is yet to be seen).
But it’s fair to ask whether this is a generalised problem with England then from a Northern Ireland and Wales as well as Scottish perspective? To some extent, yes. Wales, though, did vote for Brexit in 2016. And Northern Ireland is now on a different trajectory given the 2019 UK EU Withdrawal Agreement that means it stays in the EU’s single market for goods and effectively in the EU’s customs union. Despite Johnson’s denials, there will be a border between Britain and Northern Ireland, fracturing the UK’s internal market.
Deliberate Undermining of Devolution?
Yet neither Theresa May nor Boris Johnson, post the 2016 leave vote, would even discuss Scottish government proposals to keep Scotland in the EU’s single market or to devolve some migration powers to Scotland given the importance to its economy and society of EU citizens and free movement of people. Brexit, as pursued by May and Johnson, has meant a re-centralisation of powers in many ways despite existing devolved structures.
This has been underlined in the faltering Brexit talks since March. There has been almost no serious or strategic consultation of the Scottish government – aside from some very granular discussions with officials on some specific areas. Even information-sharing has been at best patchy and late.
The supposed consultative structures of the Joint Ministerial Committee (European Negotiations) have barely operated at all – certainly the UK government never had the slightest intention of attempting to get to a joint position across the four nations on the type of future UK-EU relationship to target. Calls from opposition parties (but not Labour) and from Wales and Scotland’s first ministers to extend the Brexit transition were dismissed out of hand in June.
And now a renewed clash is brewing over so-called common UK frameworks in some devolved areas. The Financial Times has reported that an upcoming UK internal market bill, this autumn, may instigate a new power grab of devolved powers. This will set light to a new constitutional stand-off. Devolved powers in areas including agriculture and environment were already contentious and led to a stand-off between the UK and Scottish government in 2018. The UK government argued then that EU powers in those areas could not all go back to the devolved governments or the UK’s internal market would be fractured (a little ironic given the Northern Ireland protocol, and Irish Sea border that Johnson signed up to). In the end, a compromise was agreed with the Welsh government but the Scottish government refused to sign it off (but was then ignored and legislated around) – and until now, common frameworks have not been set out. But common frameworks are relevant too for any new trade deals the UK signs with other countries now the end of transition looms – trade policy is reserved but does this mean devolved policy in these areas will be trumped by deals on chlorinated chicken or other standard-lowering agreements? It would seem the UK government will argue trade powers dominate.
The Scottish government has already indicated that it would aim to keep environmental and other devolved legislation in line with EU legislation as far as possible even after the end of transition. With a strategic goal of independence in the EU, and a commitment to tough climate goals, this looks like a reasonable aim. But it may well fall foul of this upcoming constitutional clash if environmental powers are re-centralised for the UK’s internal market in the context, in part, of upcoming trade deals. On top of this potential further undermining of devolved structures, the more the UK deviates from EU legislation (whether in reserved or devolved areas) the longer it would take an independent Scotland to adjust its laws back to EU ones if that scenario comes to pass.
For Scottish voters who are pro-EU, pro-independence and/or pro-devolution as currently structured, this all looks highly problematic and driven by a Tory, England-focused UK government. Northern Ireland after all will not be able to sit within many ‘UK’ common frameworks given it will be in the EU’s single market for goods. But for Wales and Scotland, the UK government looks only too happy to re-centralise and to engage in political stand-offs not least with the Scottish government.
England’s Politics Dominating
Neither under Theresa May nor under Boris Johnson has there been any effort to overcome the fractious splits in the union the Brexit vote provoked. Johnson appears to be most focused on appealing to those English voters, including in the north of England, who gave him his majority in December, and perhaps to keeping the Tories’ current share of the Scottish vote through deliberate confrontation with the SNP government.
There is nothing in the UK government’s current behaviour that suggests any serious strategy at all to mend the divides in the union or even any serious political thoughts, given the Conservatives are a unionist party, on how to lessen support for independence (beyond flag-waving over UK government projects). This is perhaps not surprising – Brexit, and Johnson’s populist government, is driven by an ideological and nostalgic form of English nationalism. A modern approach to reconceiving the meaning of the UK and its four nations would be anathema to that ideology. The UK government’s incompetence in the face of the massive, systemic Covid-19 crisis has only added to this retro-English nationalism ideology versus modern nationhood and multiple identities stand-off in ways that are adding to the UK’s existing fractures.
That should leave a big opportunity for Labour to step into this debate, to defend devolved powers, to promote a closer UK-EU relationship, to re-think the union in more modern terms – to show that is it not leaving the defence of devolution in Scotland to the SNP and Scottish government alone. But Labour is in a very awkward position in Scotland. Labour’s dramatic slide in Scotland in the last decade does not look easily reversible. Labour had 42% of the vote in Scotland at the 2010 election, 24% in 2015, and came third behind the Tories, with just 18.6% in the 2019 election. The SNP, in 2019, had 45% of the vote and has been in power at Holyrood since 2007; Labour has been supplanted.
Keir Starmer has called for ‘radical federalism’ but what this means is yet to be determined – or how it would surmount the old problem of the dominant size of England. Starmer has also chosen to move quickly in setting out Labour’s opposition to another independence referendum. This should have been a decision that warranted more time and reflection.
Not only is there now a 54% majority for independence but almost two-thirds of voters under 55 years of age (in that same poll) support independence, as do 46% of Labour voters. If Labour wants to win back support in Scotland, it surely needs to engage with younger voters. And it may struggle to win back those pro-EU/remain voters who have shifted to supporting independence. Labour has no clear policy for now on what the future UK-EU relationship should look like; and Starmer deliberately chose not to call for an extension of the transition period. This may play well to some of his target voters in England, not least in those ‘red wall’ seats won by the Tories. But it is not a strategy for winning back Scotland – English voters perhaps being prioritised here as Starmer establishes himself. As a result only the SNP, and Scottish Greens, have a clear policy of rejoining the EU – through independence. And Labour is indistinguishable from the Tories in positioning themselves against a further independence vote.
And if Labour does come up with a clear and compelling vision of radical federalism, it is going to jar with the refusal to consider another independence referendum – and it will need a clear stance on UK-EU relations (and on wider foreign policy). If Starmer wants some form of constitutional renewal for the UK, but isn’t prepared to put that vision as a choice, in Scotland, between a renewed, radically decentralised UK and independence, then that doesn’t suggest an openness to debate and to a shared, democratic decision on different constitutional futures.
And the EU is a real stumbling block here. If Starmer wants substantially more devolution and decentralisation, then is this back to ‘devo-max’? But, in that case, how do the UK’s relations to the EU and foreign policy fit in here. With the UK outside the EU, then Scotland’s only route to be inside the EU looks to be through independence – unless Labour comes out with a ‘re-join’ position, which is currently unlikely or unimaginable. Again, for England, Labour wants to be seen to be accepting Brexit – Brexit has happened. That doesn’t look like a positive or relevant European policy for many in Scotland.
Re-imaging Relations Across these Isles
There is a further underlying problem here little addressed by either side of the independence debate. That is how relations between Scotland, England and Wales are and could be best structured across their multiple dimensions – and their relations as well to Northern Ireland and to the Republic of Ireland. On the pro-independence side, there is a regular insistence that England would be Scotland’s friend, and certainly an important neighbour. But little beyond this. Starmer has yet to elaborate his ideas. And the Tories appear to have no wish to deal with this problem beyond a centralisation agenda. Yet relations across Britain, and across these two isles deserve more consideration than that (something the Irish government is only too well aware of).
How Scotland might get to a second independence referendum, in the face of Johnson’s refusal to consider one, is a topic of considerable debate on the pro-independence side. But with a current majority for independence in the polls, and with those under 55 years clearly supporting independence by a substantial majority, it is surely time for some serious consideration in England and Wales of what pan-Britain relations might look like in an independence scenario, even if it’s not the preferred scenario (albeit a recent poll, as discussed in a Yorkshire Bylines article, suggested English Tory voters are split on whether they want the UK to continue at all).
The question of relations across Britain, and the island of Ireland, is more challenging in the face of Brexit than it would have been if there had been a ‘yes’ vote in the 2014 independence referendum. An independent Scotland’s border with England would be an EU external border – as the Republic of Ireland’s sea border with the UK now is too. But with an independent Scotland in the EU, there would still be much need for cooperation on a range of issues with England and Wales (and with Northern Ireland too but it now requires its own separate analysis from England and Wales given its post-Brexit differentiated status). And there might be some significant if partial overlap in what that cooperation might look like between the scenarios of radical federalism and Scottish independence. But that would require a more open political debate than currently exists (albeit some interesting academic analysis is opening up on this).
Scotland’s Political Future
In the midst of the Covid crisis, and the uncertainty over the damaging economic effects of that and Brexit combined, where Scotland’s politics may go next is unclear. The Scottish government, and the SNP, are currently in a strong position but how voters react to the unfolding economic crisis and to where the Covid health crisis goes next (including a second wave or not) is uncertain – will it reinforce support for the SNP and independence or will a turbulent, continuing crisis weaken that support. And the Holyrood inquiry into how the Scottish government handled complaints against Alex Salmond is set to dominate headlines as it calls witnesses in the months to come – with Salmond’s book due out before long too. SNP infighting may not impress voters. But for now voting intentions for next May’s Scottish parliament elections look set to underline those polls that show majority support for independence. Brexit, Covid, and the Johnson government are not the only drivers of support for independence, but they are all, for now, helping to increase that support.
It could be said that Scotland’s England problem is really a problem with the Conservatives. The Tories drove Brexit; they played fast and loose with devolution. But Brexit has happened. And Labour, having struggled so much with positioning itself on Brexit in the last four years, has no clear ideas, for now, on UK-EU relations, nor the courage to face up to a more open debate on independence. England needs to reinvent itself – though not in the way that Johnson and his apparatchiks imagine (as incoherent and destructive as that appears to be). But it is not for Scotland to drive that English reinvention.
More broadly, Scotland, and Scottish politics, with all its tribalism and multiple faults (like any democracy), looks like a relatively normal, small country European democracy. The same cannot be said of its larger neighbour England. In Scotland, voters chose to stay in the UK in 2014 and in the EU in 2016. It could be said that voters chose the mainstream status quo. But the Tory Brexiters have, quite deliberately, upended that status quo – it no longer exists. And that is Scotland’s England problem.