Oliver Lewis quitting from the ‘Union Unit’ over a week ago with less than two weeks in the job is frankly the least of Boris Johnson’s difficulties. Johnson is perhaps too keenly aware of the wider issue at hand: more than twice as many Britons think Scotland will be independent in 10 years than think it will remain in the Union.
The pandemic has had a perverse effect on the Union, showing Sturgeon as a capable leader, even if it has damaged the SNP’s economic case further. Sturgeon has flexed the full extent of her devolved powers in response to the pandemic, often departing from Westminster’s stance. Her regular press conferences and more delicate approach to lifting restrictions has given the appearance of a government in waiting.
But like much of the world ravaged by recession, the economic case for Scottish Independence has further weakened: borrowing has soared, and an independent Scotland faces a higher public debt-to-GDP ratio than the Union as a whole, which now stands at an astonishing 84%. The question thus remains: will people vote to take the economic gamble? It’s a real possibility: Brexit illustrated that emotional and constitutional issues can trump the economic case. So, the economic case for Unionists is not enough on its own. Johnson is therefore left with a few options.
The first option is ceding further powers to the devolved administrations in an attempt to appease the Nationalists. There might be some rationale to this in a potentially over-centralised country. Johnson could even placate the rump of MPs who deem further devolution as a slippery slope through bypassing Holyrood and giving more powers to Scottish local councils instead. Nevertheless, the simple statistical fact remains that England has eight out of every ten people in Britain: devolution can only go so far.
Johnson may choose to simply delay the whole question by not giving any legal authority to a referendum. Lord North’s legacy as the ‘man who lost America’ has taunted future Prime Ministers of popular history’s ability to belittle years of political labouring to a quote. A leader of a Conservative and Unionist Party would unlikely want a similar outcome. Admittedly, delay might allow some of the economic shocks of Brexit to lessen as we settle for the ‘gin and tonic’ stage of Mr Gove’s Brexit flight. Nevertheless, obduracy towards a second referendum is not a long-term strategy. Independence will continue to simmer, particularly with Sturgeon’s threats of an advisory referendum. Radical action may be needed.
A more efficacious strategy might be for Johnson to use the breathing room of the pandemic, to expose the Scottish Nationalist government and elucidate the benefits of Unionism. COVID-19 has shown how the British state can come to rescue when needed: the Treasury-funded furlough scheme has paid Scottish wages and government backed loans have supported Scottish businesses coupled with the fast roll-out of the vaccine. The vaccine itself represents a British success, with Scottish scientists sitting on British panels to help produce it at a rapid pace. These policies can be deployed to save the Union just as much as they can help us out of the pandemic. The economic argument alone is insufficient, instead, Unionists should show a shared identity and emotional connection.
Although a long-term delay is not a viable strategy, a short-term delay may be advantageous to the UK government. The pandemic and the economic recession facing Britain is an opportune moment to delay the referendum. Johnson might consider actively using this time to debate the Nationalist vision. He could press the Nationalists for a more detailed plan on how to handle a breakup of 300 years, ironically aided by the recent display of difficulties of divorcing a 48-year relationship with the European Union that he architected. In any case, a more detailed plan will at least provide for a more honest and realistic debate.
It is sometimes easy to forget that it is a difficult time for the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon. An inquiry into Sturgeon’s knowledge about allegations of sexual misconduct by Alex Salmond and a tricky economic situation might affect her position in the May elections. Since the inception of the SNP in 1934, we’ve seen nearly 100 states gain Independence from either decolonisation, war or economic collapse. Breaking away from a prosperous democracy and what many call the longest and most successful political union the world has ever seen is a more difficult case to pitch. Johnson has assets at his disposal which he needs to carefully apply. Whether he can aptly handle the task is another question.
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