In recent weeks, the issue of the Union has once again been brought to the fore of British political discourse. Controversies regarding coronavirus vaccines has highlighted this in regard to Ireland, whilst Boris’ ‘essential’ trip to Glasgow has done so for Scotland. The Scottish National Party (SNP)’s recent release of their 11-point ‘roadmap’ to a second independence referendum (indryref2) has further consolidated the central position of the secessionist debate. On a more personal level, I have felt a renewed ripple of tension towards the Sassenach in light of some conversations with my Durham friends. My peers were surprised and confused to hear that I would never support England in a sporting match, always whoever their opposition was. In turn, I was similarly flummoxed upon realising their ignorance regarding what Burns Night represents, with them not knowing that Burns was a person (!). The theme of Burns is especially relevant given Nicola’s recent description of Boris as a “cowerin’ timerous beastie”, but I fear the humour of this might be lost here.
Over the past year, the high-political case for Scottish independence has undoubtedly gained credibility. This is largely due to the policies enacted by Boris and Nicola, the press coverage they have received, and their integrity as politicians as understood by the electorate. The impact of these elements has been clearly reflected in several recent polls, in which the majority of Scots surveyed stated they would vote ‘Yes’ in indyref2. It is my belief, however, that now is not the time to push for such an event.
What these polls do not explore is the level of priority Scots currently attribute to a potential indryref2. Other research has asked this question, with one study showing over 75% of respondents wanting recovery from Covid-19 to be placed before independence on the devolved agenda, 64% of whom identified as SNP supporters. The results of a second study show the economy and NHS as being higher popular priorities than independence. In fact, a poll by Survation, on behalf of Scotland in Union, found that only 28% of people viewed a second referendum as an immediate priority. There seems to be a consensus, therefore, that the vaccine rollout and the collateral damage of Covid-19 must be sufficiently seen to before a referendum is called.
A further case in point against an imminent referendum is that a Yes-No vote drastically oversimplifies the complexities of the issue at hand. Surely we Britons have learnt this from the disastrous outcome of the Brexit referendum. The electorate needs to know what kind of a deal, or what kind of an independence, they are being asked to declare themselves either in support or opposition of. There are so many unknowns regarding what an independent Scotland would look like, with the grass always tending to look greener on the other side. The argument that an independent Scotland would seamlessly rejoin the European Union, for instance, is far from sound. Admittedly, this is more of a criticism towards the nature of referendums in general than the Scottish case specifically, but it is nevertheless noteworthy.
Moreover, I think I can safely say that we have all felt fragile in recent months, and that more divisions being forced down our throats is the last thing we need. Society is already painfully polarised on many issues: the shadow of Brexit, partisan party politics, and now Covid-19, and how the contradictory rules and regulations are interpreted by different social groups, with different agendas and priorities, just to name a few. Boris’ recent treatment and dismissiveness of Holyrood’s calls for independence are utterly indefensible, but the SNP must also ensure that they are not perceived as exploiting Britain in a time of immense vulnerability to promote their inherently divisive agenda. As Pamela Nash – Labour Party politician and Scotland in Union’s chief executive – has recently argued in The Scotsman, 2021 is the time for recovery, not further dislocation. Her argument is especially powerful as the recovery she describes extends beyond Covid-19, emphasising how the climate emergency and staggeringly high drug-related death rate in Scotland desperately warrant attention by the devolved government.
Ultimately, it is crucial that, going forward, a positive case for the Union is clearly communicated by politicians defending it, as opposed to merely criticising the idea of independence and essentially treating it as illegitimate. The latter represents the feeble efforts which have been made since the end of the ‘No’ campaign in 2014 – the continuation of which will only further bolster the pro-independence camp’s support base. Some Tories are beginning to make a piecemeal shift here: Matt Hancock, for example, has been trying to highlight vaccine procurement as an example of how Scotland is benefitting from being part of the UK. Matt’s notorious tears, however, certainly do not convince Scots of his sincerity. The efforts of those in favour of the Union – Labour, Liberal and Tory alike – must extend far beyond those currently underway if they are to resonate with a sufficient proportion of Scots to keep the Union united, as the present debate revolves around when – not if – indyref2 will take place.
Feature image by UNISON – the public service union. Available via flickr under Creative Commons 2.0.