Can Boris Keep the U.K. United? Scotland May Have Other Ideas


Can Boris Keep the U.K. United? Scotland May Have Other Ideas

December 2019 was supposed to have been British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s triumphant victory – and to a certain extent, it was. Johnson called for a general election three months after replacing Theresa May in October 2019 and his Conservative Party was rewarded with 43.6 percent of the UK vote to Labor’s 32.2 percent. Yet even though Johnson won his mandate to “get Brexit done,” the 2019 British election gave the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) an even more decisive victory, increasing its share of Scotland’s vote from 36.9 to 45 percent. Johnson got the support he needed to carry on with Brexit, but his victory also sowed the seeds of future confrontation with Scotland.

As early as April 2019, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon proposed a second Scottish independence referendum to be held in 2021. The SNP’s decisive victory in December 2019 caused her to move up the timeline. After the election, Sturgeon wasted no time announcing that she would ask Johnson for a section 30 order to hold an independence referendum in 2020. At the time, though Perch Perspectives did not yet exist, Jacob Shapiro, Perch’s founder and chief strategist,  wrote the following:

“If Johnson rules out a second Scottish referendum, it would mean Westminster’s confidence in the outcome has been considerably shaken – and might well give Scottish independence the last boost it needs to become more than an SNP fantasy. Whatever Johnson does, how he decides to handle Scotland, not the EU, will define how his premiership is remembered not just in the UK, but by the world.”

A month later, Johnson gave Sturgeon his answer, a polite but definite “no.” The COVID-19 crisis followed shortly thereafter, giving Westminster a brief reprieve, but the issue was not forgotten, and now, Scotland is making noise about independence again. Last month, two Scottish MPs, Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny, declared that the Scottish government needed to formulate a “Plan B” to combat Johnson’s recalcitrance, going so far as to suggest that if the SNP wins a majority in upcoming Scottish parliamentary election results in May 2021 that it be considered “a mandate from the people of Scotland to commence independence negotiations with the UK Government”.

MacNeil and McEleny were, in effect, suggesting an illegal independence referendum in the guise of a Scottish parliamentary election. And while the letter of their suggestion has met with opposition from members of their own party, the spirit in which their proposal was proffered has been embraced. Scottish MP Kenny MacAskill wrote a column in The Scotsman in which he voiced his preference for a referendum – but also the need for a viable “Plan B” if Johnson proved unwilling to sanction a referendum. Fellow Scottish MP Joanna Cherry penned a column of her own in The National in which she argued that it is far from clear that the only way to have a legal referendum is with Johnson’s approval – and that Scotland should challenge that ambiguity in court.

That, however, is not what should concern Johnson. Far more concerning are the results of a recent June 15-19 Panelbase poll of Scottish voters on the issue of independence. When asked “Should Scotland be an independent country?” 50 percent of respondents answered yes, 43 percent no, and 7 percent were undecided. Excluding undecideds, the results were 54 percent yes and 46 percent no. The demographic breakdown of the poll is interesting. Young men under the age of 54 are in favor of independence by a margin of 63 to roughly 30 percent. Only men above the age of 55 are in favor of union by a margin of 41 to 55 percent. Women aged 16-34 are for independence by a 61 to 25 percent margin – but women 35-54 were in favor of union by a 49 to 43 percent margin and women 55 and over for union by a 36 to 57 percent margin.

It would be premature to predict the demise of the United Kingdom on the basis of a single poll. But there are other indicators that relations between Scotland and the British government are deteriorating. Over 10,000 Scots recently backed a petition calling for Scotland to close its borders with England – causing Boris Johnson himself to weigh in angrily that “there is no such thing as a border between England and Scotland.” British MP and Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg mocked Sturgeon for wanting to “build a wall” between England and Scotland and likened Scotland to a “district or area.” If a general British election were held today, 51 percent of Scots would vote for the SNP.

Sturgeon, meanwhile, has lambasted the British government for its “shambolic decision process” on reopening policies and said Scotland would decide for itself whether and how fast to relax restrictions on people arriving in Scotland from outside the country. Polls also show that Scots believe the Scottish government has handled the COVID-19 crisis better than the UK government. This is to say nothing of the fact that a majority of Scots (62 percent of them to be exact) voted against Brexit and can legitimately claim that Brexit is happening against their will – a Brexit that the UK government is still threatening to execute without a trade deal in place with the European Union.

313 years ago, the Scottish Parliament ratified a treaty that united Scotland and England into a United Kingdom. At least part of the reason for the merger was the collapse of the Scottish economy due to an ill-fated scheme to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama at the Gulf of Darién (a tangent for another time). Three centuries of English and Scottish union have been based on the shared prosperity made possible by the union. Whether true or not, Scotland’s perception of Brexit is that for the first time since 1707, union with England might be worse for Edinburgh than independence.

A recent Scottish government report concluded that Scotland needs “to build readiness to deal with the next cataclysmic disruption which will inevitably arrive either for current generations or future ones.” The report’s explicit concern was for another global pandemic, or climate change, or the consequences of a potential cyber attack. But it is impossible to read the report without considering that the “cataclysmic disruption” Scotland is preparing for is independence. What was true in December 2019 remains true today: How Boris Johnson decides to handle the issue of Scottish independence will be the defining issue of his government. Judging on current indicators, Johnson is at risk of becoming the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.