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Polls in Scotland show a consistent lead in favour of independence as the Tory Covid failures are laid bare, argues Chris Bambery

Something has changed in Scotland during this pandemic, something which has suddenly sent a shiver of fear down the spines of Boris Johnson and his Cabinet, leading to them rushing off to north of the border.

What has changed is that for the first time ever a series of polls in recent months have shown a consistent lead in support for independence. The latest put it at 55 percent. That was the percentage that voted to stay in the UK in the September 2014 referendum. In other words, it’s a 100 percent reversal of that result.

Johnson and co. recall that during that referendum, support for a Yes vote for independence grew from 27 percent to 45 percent as a result of a vibrant Yes campaign.

Meanwhile, polls this month also suggest that the Scottish National Party would win an overall majority in next year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, with 57 percent of the vote. As the electoral system was devised so as to prevent one party gaining an overall majority that would be no mean feat. And that poll followed the debacle over Scottish school exam results; although First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and education minister, John Sweeney, retreated in better order and quicker time than would Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson (the SNP’s huge membership among teachers and the popularity among young people for independence no doubt played a part).

If the SNP were to get such a majority they would regard that as a mandate to hold a second independence referendum. That needs the approval of Downing Street and Johnson has made it clear that would not be forthcoming.

That would open up a constitutional crisis with the Financial Times noting:

“Privately many Tories admit that the position is unsustainable in the long run, saying it would fuel Scottish grievance and make independence more likely.”

Tories scrambling north

Boris Johnson is currently on holiday in Scotland having only last month visited the Shetland Isles. He is not the only Tory Minister to venture north of the border; Michael Gove visited his native Aberdeen and also crossing the border were the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay, Business Secretary Alok Sharma and Chancellor, Rushi Sunak. Media briefings claimed he was viewed in Scotland as the least toxic of Conservative leaders because of the furlough scheme and the money he has pumped into the economy. The evidence for Sunak’s supposed popularity is pretty thin.

Gove was the one who last month raised the alarm at a Cabinet meeting over the danger posed by rising support for independence.

The growing support for independence and the continuing support for the SNP is tied up with the current pandemic. The Scottish government controls health care and Nicola Sturgeon rapidly took matters into her own hands.

The number of deaths percentage wise is lower than England’s, the highest in Europe, and Sturgeon undoubtedly comes across at her press briefings as being caring and compassionate – compare and contrast with Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings. In other words, people in Scotland look south of the border and see a government which is not in control. It reinforces an instinct that Scotland could run things better by themselves.

The problem for Johnson is twofold. A supposed charm offensive of sending up Tory ministers can only remind everyone that the Tories have not won an election in Scotland since 1955 and that there is widespread resentment that Scotland doesn’t vote Tory but keeps getting Tory governments, which still retain considerable power in Scotland despite the 1997 devolution settlement. Secondly, there is no strategy for saving the Union. 

Gove argued in Aberdeen 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.”

But that usually seems to be about commemorating World War Two and Britain’s supposed “finest hour.” We’ve had plenty of that in recent months, but it hasn’t done the trick north of the border.

Wrapped in a Union Jack

The government also plans to display Union Jacks on infrastructure projects in Scotland funded by Westminster. But Scots were quick to recall Johnson during the Brexit referendum attacking the EU for doing exactly that. Scotland voted convincingly to stay in the EU and there is widespread feeling that Scottish concerns have been ridden roughshod over by Westminster.

Wrapping himself in the Union Jack seems Johnson’s preferred strategy but it’s not a winning strategy in Scotland as it can only rally the faithful.

Gove tried a different tack on his visit to Aberdeen. So, while defending the Union, naturally, he spoke out in defence of the existing devolution settlement, stating:

“Certainly my view is that we in the UK Government have a responsibility to work alongside the Scottish Government in order to deliver for Scottish people.”

He then added:

“I was talking to Nicola just last Friday and we agreed we would shortly release a shared statement across the UK about our approach towards the virus so whatever noises off we’ve had in the past, the right approach, the approach we discussed on Friday and shared on Saturday is to work well together.”

This was distinctly off message, as was his suggestion Sturgeon might attend Cabinet meetings in London, something quickly shot down by Johnson. The Financial Times reported one minister saying, “He doesn’t see Sturgeon as an equal.” 

Labour’s busted flush and Tory knives

Back in 2014 as fears grew in Downing Street that David Cameron would lose the referendum there was a saviour at hand; Gordon Brown. I know this seems unlikely but in the final weeks he rallied enough Labour voters with promises of greater devolution (of which nothing came) and the scare tactic that independence would mean old age pensions would be cut (not true). The No vote won among over 55’s.

Today Brown is a busted flush and Scottish Labour, which not so long ago dominated Scottish politics, now trails behind the SNP and the Tories. Its lack lustre leader, Richard Leonard, concentrates on attacking the SNP and not the Tories, and since the lock down seems to have gone into self-isolation for ever. Down in London Sir Keir Starmer has made clear his opposition to another referendum.

Meanwhile the long knives were out within the Scottish Conservatives.

At the end of last month, the Scottish Tory leader, Jackson Carlaw, suddenly resigned after another inept appearance in the Holyrood Parliament where Sturgeon regularly made mince meat of him. Carlaw said he had come to the "painful conclusion" that he was not the best person to lead the case for Scotland remaining in the UK.

The reality was Carlaw had been shown into a room where a revolver lay on a table alongside a piece of paper and offered the choice of putting a bullet in his head or writing a resignation letter.

His replacement, Douglas Ross, is the MP for Moray and resigned from Boris Johnson’s government over Dominic Cummings breaching lock down earlier this year. His problem is that he sits on the green benches of Westminster not in the Scottish Parliament, which is what matters these days in Scottish politics.

Few reading this article will have heard of Carlaw or Ross, and they are hardly household names in Scotland, except, perhaps, in their own household.

Bigger than the SNP

What makes the growing support for independence more interesting is that the SNP have been in office since 2007. Only Germany’s Angela Merkel and Labour in Wales can match that in Europe.

The Scottish government has in the last couple of years taken a decidedly neoliberal turn in economic affairs, and there is growing criticism that the SNP leadership has no strategy for independence beyond asking Johnson for a referendum.

The movement for independence is broader than the SNP but it has the biggest membership of any party in the UK in percentage terms. It has traditionally been a very loyal membership with the leadership exerting tight control. In the last couple of years that’s changed with party members taking to the streets in major marches organised by “All Under One Banner,” despite the coolness displayed to it by Sturgeon. Criticism has surfaced inside the SNP and the failed prosecution of former First Minister, Alex Salmond, looks set to rebound on the current incumbent and the party leadership.

Despite all that support for independence grows. That’s because support for it is based democracy and escaping Tory rule with its full blooded neoliberal agenda and its British nationalism. This pandemic has also shown Johnson up as inept and dangerous, ushering more Scots towards the exit door.

Lastly, returning to the most recent poll showing 55 percent support for independence the map of how that breaks down across Scotland’s local authorities shows support for independence highest in working class areas like Glasgow, Dundee, Inverclyde and West and East Dunbartonshire and least in the most wealthiest parts of the country. Independence wins on the housing estates and not in the board rooms or country estates.

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Tagged under: Scotland SNP Tories Covid19
Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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