(Photo: Time Magazine)
By Owen Buchan – Contributor
On the world stage and to many foreign observers, the UK acts as a single and respectable nation. This image is presented clearly to grand meetings on the world stage. At any meeting of a key global organisation such as the UN, G20 or previously the EU, a delegate for the entire UK was in attendance. Domestically, it would appear similar. A single unitary government acts as the leader for the entirety of the UK, improving it and moving it forward. While this all sounds like an idealistic and desirable vision for the integrity of the UK; with visions of all of us singing “God save the Queen” in harmony, even a brief look below the surface shows this not to be true. While the UK has historically held the Union together, this is looking more difficult in the current political climate. The current COVID-19 pandemic is fuelling more calls for Scottish independence, and this is very much a clear threat to the Union that we need to address.
The United Kingdom’s modern existence has been filled with fractures and breaking points that we still feel the impact of today. The most recent of these fractures was the infamous troubles that raged in Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998. To lots of people across the UK, its horrors and tragedies are still burned into their minds. From this pain emerged the “Good-Friday agreement”, that installed a power-sharing devolved body in Northern Ireland. Whilst not perfect and experiencing periods of shutdown, it has ensured peace and crucially upheld the Unionist’s aim of a ‘British’ Northern Ireland. From this, Westminster has learned to be cautious with Northern Ireland. This may not have been evident throughout the Brexit negotiations; but the clear message from Boris Johnson in the 2019 General Election was “no forms, no checks and no barrier of any kind”. This hopefully seems to be a red line that Johnson will not cross. Yet we will still have to wait a while before we have the full picture. Despite all the previous horror and violence in Northern Ireland and the current Brexit confusion, the Union held together. Currently, there is a new threat to the Union. One that we are all aware of but perhaps don’t take seriously enough; Scottish independence. The calls for Scottish independence are thankfully peaceful and utilise democracy for their objectives. Yet, that is no reason to ignore the situation just because the effects are not directly apparent in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
When looking at the start of the Scottish independence movement, we see it has been going on longer than we’ve realised. The SNP, a prime driver of Scottish independence, have been fighting their cause since 1934 and have always sent MPs to Westminster. It was in the Thatcher years where Scotland really felt crushed by the Union or in reality, a Westminster government. Thatcherism ultimately scarred Scotland with deindustrialisation, and the mass closures of mines like Gartcosh, as well as perhaps the most infamous mistake, the early introduction of the dreaded poll tax. Furthermore, Scotland was denied the rights to North Sea Oil, despite claims of “It’s Scotland’s oil” starting in 1974 by the SNP. Thatcher used the oil revenues, making up 10% of the Treasury revenue by the mid-1980s, to fund her cuts to taxes and welfare. Scotland thus felt robbed of what they believed was theirs. Therefore, oil became intertwined with the Scottish identity. Then came Tony Blair, offering them a chance to express its own identity. He proclaimed Scotland could have its own Parliament, known as Holyrood. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were all given their own devolved bodies. Scotland is the only country with a devolved “parliament”, rather than a less powerful “assembly”, which reflects the high demand for a devolved power in Scotland. Many suggest that the creation of Holyrood was a fantastic idea for bringing democracy closer to the Scottish people, who already felt a huge disconnect from the British Westminster establishment. However, perhaps the biggest benefactors of Holyrood’s creation have been the SNP. They have been a dominant player since 2007 and have been able to push forward their social democratic agenda. This had given the SNP the feeling that they didn’t need Westminster to govern them and that the Scottish people were governing themselves. It was under this backdrop that the SNP was able to rise and become the legitimate third party in UK politics. The SNP argument became so persuasive that Scotland received its independence referendum, but failed by a considerable margin. Despite recent suggestion of Kremlin interference, the UK avoided a swift death in 2014, which should not be taken lightly. From here we saw more powers given to Holyrood and the SNP claimed 56 out of the 59 seats in Scotland in the 2015 General Election. So, Scotland was left in a limbo of rejecting being independent but overwhelmingly supporting a Scottish independence movement still. The SNP goal of wanting more power for Holyrood is still popular amongst the wider Scottish people.
More recently, Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, with 68% voting remain and 38% voting leave. Despite this, Scotland was outvoted by an English majority voting to leave. Therefore, the SNP and its supporters saw a new and more effective case for Scottish independence. This has coincided with a continuous lack of clarity over Brexit under Theresa May’s premiership and partially under Boris’s. Ultimately, COVID-19 has proved to be a winner for Scottish independence. A Panelbase Survey back in July found that Scottish independence overtook remaining in the Union, 54% and 46% respectively. Opinion polls fluctuate and often have a small sample size so this could be nothing to worry about. Yet Sir John Curtis, who is said to be Britain’s top political scientist, believes the Union is weaker than it’s ever been. He personally attributes these results to Nicola Sturgeon’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Scotland has been given a great deal of autonomy when dealing with the virus. Scotland as a result has been a lot more successful than England, with lowering infection and death rates much earlier than Boris could ever have hoped for in England. Therefore, Ms Sturgeon has been able to place her as an alternative for Scottish people, compared to a ‘hopeless’ British government – a government who is pulling Scotland out of the EU against its will. Ms Sturgeon showed that Scotland can not only go it alone, but alone in a crisis. So now the very real fear is that if “IndyRef2” occurs, there could very much be an end to the Union.
Despite the SNPs hostility towards the Union, they deserve respect for their aims and beliefs. The SNP have always campaigned on a left-wing nationalist platform that has been effective at not being xenophobic or racist, unlike most other modern nationalist movements. The allure of self-determination and self-governance is a strong one. The issue is that Scotland had its chance to be independent in 2014 and rejected it. The SNP is honest in its intentions, they don’t plan to stop until Scotland is independent. In a time of crisis like with COVID-19, it can be easy to lose faith with institutions in the UK, such as Westminster.
The current calls for independence could very possibly be a temporary expression of anger. Yet, this very much could “the” call for Scottish independence, where the want doesn’t simmer or settle but rises and remains constant. Action can be taken to save the Union. More powers can be given to Holyrood but that will not be enough and could even play more into the hands of the SNP. We need to carry all of Britain forward, in terms of decision making and wealth creation after Brexit. Scotland needs to be brought back into the driving seat, as one of four equal countries. This could be achieved by the creation of a federal system, where Westminster takes a back seat and all nations of the UK can now all exercise more autonomy. Therefore, all four countries can better attend to their own needs and the Union, while still present, is more in the background and therefore not synonymous with restriction. Ultimately, this is only one possible solution. We will have to wait for a form of normality to return, where COVID-19 is over and we’re fully out of the EU. Then again, the Scottish people may be asked if they want independence. They may well reject what the Union has become and independent. That is a question only the Scottish can answer.
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