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Since David Cameron attempted to appease the threat of Scottish nationalism in 2014 with the holding of a referendum, the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) has instead gone from strength to strength. The most recent 2019 general election witnessed Nicola Sturgeon increase the SNP’s standing in Westminster by 13 seats and the party particularly savoured taking Jo Swinson’s seat in East Dunbartonshire; further ridiculing the former Liberal Democrat leader’s claim that she was “a candidate to be prime minister”.
With COVID-19 causing an economic recession in both Scotland and England, support for independence could easily be assumed to be dwindling. Instead, the opposite is true. Most recent polling from The Daily Telegraph shows that around 47.6% of Scots are now in favour of independence versus 43.4% that are against. Even with a margin for error, these polling figures indicate that support for independence hasn’t been vanquished by the arrival of COVID-19 and they make worrying reading for both Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer.
The critical question now is can the wave of support for Scottish independence be halted or is it now a question of when Scotland becomes independent, rather than if. Both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have deployed the strategy of simply saying ‘no’ to Sturgeon’s calls for another referendum; although it could be suggested that it is better to address calls for independence now, rather than to let the cause gain further momentum. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the SNP’s rise has taken place in a political climate that has been hijacked by populism. Voters are seemingly caring less about the specifics and instead are being drawn to parties that are putting forward policies that have one cause, which goes against the previously dominant and popular trajectory of neo-liberalism. Both those that voted for Brexit in 2016 and those that continue to vote for the SNP have an important similar sentiment in common; they feel that those who make impactful political decisions are distant and that their support for the status quo hasn’t benefited their day to day lives.Independence for many in Scotland is about Scottish voices having a greater say about the direction in which their country travels both domestically and in the foreign arena.
For the Labour Party, they face an unprecedented challenge. Starmer has recognised that his chance of becoming PM will be largely influenced by the party’s performance in Scotland. However, at the moment it doesn’t look likely that they will reverse the swing that took place in the 2015 general election when 82% of those that previously voted Labour switched to the SNP. If the Labour party is going to be successful in winning back its former voters it will need to closely scrutinise the SNP’s use of its devolved powers and unpick the SNP’s portrayal of independence as a utopia.
The SNP would argue that COVID-19 has highlighted the shortfall of receiving a limited number of devolved powers and not full financial autonomy. The devolved government, in their eyes, doesn’t have sufficient borrowing powers. The Unionists could start their attack on Scottish independence by reiterating the unlikelihood of Scotland being allowed to keep the pound sterling; although that was highlighted in the 2014 referendum by Alistair Darling and still doesn’t seem to have cut through. A stronger basis for persuading voters to abandon their support for the party would be to emphasise that increased spending for the NHS, education and public services will all have to come to an end in the event of independence. Most recently, The Spectator cited that Scotland has the worst deficit in the western world, with it standing at 8.6% of GDP. Furthermore, Sturgeon has been a long critic of austerity and yet the IFS (Institute of Fiscal Studies) has warned that an independent Scotland would have to bear the burden of an “extra 10 years of austerity”. Though there could be an alternative solution to the dilemma of rising support for independence.
The Scottish electorate have already faced the brunt of dire economic forecasts and the SNP is likely to characterise any warnings of economic destitution as mere scaremongering. Instead, James Forsyth is wise in suggesting that in the event of another referendum taking place the terms of Scotland’s potential departure from the Union needs to be agreed and negotiated first.This way the SNP would have to fight the referendum based on hard truths, rather than make up what independence would look like as the campaign drags on. Secondly, the prospects of the Unionist campaign would be better if they struck a tone of optimism, rather than staying in the Union being a matter of safety first. The new Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has pledged that if the Conservatives win big in the Scottish Parliament elections in May then Scotland’s busiest motorway will be enlarged to three lanes. Although this electoral feat is unlikely, this pledge captures the spirit of campaigning that will be required to change voters’ minds about independence. Scottish nationalism will only not prevail if it is outlined to voters how Scotland’s unique economic position in the Union means that their primary domestic priorities can be better delivered upon.
An independent Scotland isn’t inevitable. Though if politicians in Westminster don’t change their strategy soon, then Scottish independence could simply be a matter of time, rather than a question of ‘if’.