In the 2014 referendum, the Scottish pro-independence side had only gotten 45% of the vote, but after Brexit and COVID-19, things have changed. This is according to a recent Ipsos-Mori poll: 58% of Scots are in favor of independence from the UK. In addition, 64% of the interviewees believe that a new referendum should be held in case of a victory for the Scottish National Party (SNP), currently in government, in the May 2021 elections.
The SNP is currently at 58% in the polls, with the Conservatives at 19%, Labour at 13% and the Lib Dems at 8%. Thus, another victory for the SNP, headed by Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon, seems like a foregone conclusion, as well as a second referendum.
In September, Sturgeon had already indicated the road map: in March 2021, her government will present the plan for the new referendum, postponed until after the elections due to the COVID-19 emergency. An emergency that, together with Brexit, has certainly made the divorce between London and Edinburgh more likely.
Scotland currently has its own parliament and control of key sectors such as health care, but the government in London decides on issues such as economics and migration policies. The Scottish government has thus been able to implement policies to fight COVID-19 that have been different, and have tended to be more cautious, than those of Boris Johnson. At the same time, policies for the post-pandemic economic recovery, in addition to the still-very-open question of Brexit, are being decided in London.
Fears for Scotland’s economic stability in the event of independence—a decisive issue in the referendum of 2014—have been gradually fading away since the start of the post-Brexit period. The majority of Scots voted to stay in the EU and reacted with disappointment to the victory of the Brexiters in England, as well as to the progressive radicalization of the conservative positions of the British government in the post-Brexit negotiations. Not surprisingly, it was the advent of Boris Johnson’s government that corresponded to the greatest growth of Scottish SNP support. Moreover, in Scotland, many people do not feel the inflexible anti-Europeanism that the majority of the British do. In short, while independence was seen as an irrational choice in 2014, things seem to have changed a lot since Brexit.
Following the trend of the polls from the beginning of 2020 to today, one can see that it is precisely in the period between March and April, i.e. with the beginning of the pandemic, that polls have recorded the pro-independence position being ahead for the first time.
There are essentially three reasons for this. First, the more prudent measures for the prevention of contagion decided by the Scottish government managed to avert—at least during the first phase—the record number of infections recorded in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In addition, Scotland directly manages its national health system and has always distinguished itself for its attention to welfare, far greater than that of the recent liberal-conservative governments of Downing Street, now accused of being responsible for the record numbers of deaths from COVID-19 due to the cuts to public health.
For the third and final reason, the Johnson government’s management of the pandemic has seemed ineffective to many Scots, including from a non-health point of view, in terms of communication and image. The Ipsos-Mori poll shows that Sturgeon’s popularity is now at 72%, while 76% of Scots surveyed said they were dissatisfied with British Prime Minister Johnson. Sturgeon has clearly been able to give a more reassuring image in the past months and communicate the government’s strategy to combat the pandemic more clearly.
It must be said that while the first wave of the pandemic had done less damage in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, today the numbers of the infected are no longer so different among the territories. Furthermore, there is no lack of internal criticism directed against Sturgeon and the SNP. For the Scottish Labour and Conservatives, the decision to shift the focus from the pandemic-related economic and health issues to a divisive issue such as independence is profoundly mistaken, if not directly self-interested. They argue that the issue is divisive not only towards the rest of the Kingdom, but also among the Scots themselves, given that 42% are against secession.
Among the reasons for their opposition, the Ipsos-Mori poll notes, are the issue of the obvious socio-cultural homogeneity with the rest of the UK, the idea that the presence of a government and parliament in Edinburgh already guarantees sufficient autonomy, the risks of international isolation and the risks that the economy and labor market will face.
In the background of this internal dialogue, however, there is the clear opposition of the British government to a second referendum. Thus, Scotland could find itself in the situation of organizing a vote not recognized by the Johnson government, whose outcome, if the independence side wins, would open up scenarios that are difficult to envision. The only European precedent is an unhappy one—the Catalan.
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