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As Brexit bogs down, support for Scottish Independence surges to all-time high

Audio 08:42
The Union Jack and the Scottish flag blowing in the wind in Edinburgh
The Union Jack and the Scottish flag blowing in the wind in Edinburgh AFP/File
By: Assa Samaké-Roman
14 min

Six years can feel like a lifetime: Scotland, more than any other nation in the United Kingdom, certainly knows about it. It was only in 2014 that the nation chose to stay in the United Kingdom in a historic referendum. Many said it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to debate Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. Six years later, the constitutional debate is as far from being settled as it has ever been. The past eight polls have showed that now up to 55 percent of Scots would choose to leave the UK.

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Michael Sturrock, who leads the public affairs work for a large trade association in the data and marketing industry, is among those who have changed their minds about independence.

In 2014, Sturrock supported Scotland remaining in the Union. But, as he woke up to the news that the UK had voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, he had a rethink. “It just became clear to me that the way to get my EU membership and citizenship back was through independence”, he says.

More recently, the coronavirus pandemic has cemented his view that Scotland would be better off as an independent country. This is largely due to the fact that the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has done daily briefings on the pandemic while the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, hasn’t.

An atmosphere of open honesty

“There’s that openness and honest conversation with the nation that is carried on throughout this whole time, whereas the UK government sends a minister every now and then. It’s not the same honesty”, he says.

“I think that’s what’s pushing people, specifically this year, towards supporting independence. There’s now a better relationship between the government and its people in Scotland, and people see that it does carry on in other areas."

Even if polling shows that there is more trust in the devolved government than in the UK government, that doesn’t mean that independence is being considered as a priority in the midst of the pandemic, according to Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Liberal-Democrat member of the Scottish Parliament for the Edinburgh Western constituency.

To the MSP, the best option for the UK would be to embrace federalism as well as other reforms.

“We also need to change the way we elect our governments. The example that I use is that Tony Blair took Britain into an illegal war in Iraq with only something like 40% of the popular vote.

"Thirdly we need to reform our UK Parliament. People get very angry when they see the privilege and the patronage of the UK House of Lords. So I think we need a directly elected second chamber, whether that is a senate or something equivalent.”

Even if the Scottish Labour Party is yet to articulate a position on the constitutional debate, the UK Labour Party has come round to supporting federalism.

However, federalism might not be an easy way out of the constitutional conundrum, according to Dr Ben Jackson, an associate professor of Modern History at Oxford University, and author of a book on nationalist political thought in modern Scotland.

“The term federalism makes sense to people who are interested in these issues but not average voters. Trying to find a way of communicating a model of Scottish self-government that is neither independence nor the status quo is the task that they are confronting”, he says.

“But of course, as soon as they move closer to federalism, there are questions of how to operationalise it and whether there is in fact any interest in the rest of the UK in implementing a federal system.”

Decade-long Labour struggle

Labour has been struggling over the past decade to regain its status as a dominant force in Scottish politics. In the last Scottish Parliament elections four years ago, they were beaten by the Scottish Tories into third place.

Ironically, Labour’s woes in Scotland could be bad news for a conservative government that is extremely unpopular north of the border.

“For unionism to get a hearing in Scottish politics, you might need the conservatives to lose power in London. It might only be with a Labour government that there might be more of a chance of making the case for the United Kingdom”, Dr Jackson reckons.

“That’s always been the dynamic in Scottish politics since the 1980s: support for greater democratic autonomy in Scotland rises as the conservatives are in power.”

The next Scottish Parliament elections will take place in May 2021. Depending on how the pro-independence parties fare, this vote could signify the beginning of a brand new campaign for self-determination, or an end of the constitutional debate for the time being.

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