By Cameron Fulton
This new year’s in Scotland was different to most: Jackie Bird was a missed figure on the screens, ‘Only an Excuse’ aired its final showing, but strangest of all was the fireworks: not in Edinburgh, but Stirling. An attempt to limit gatherings in the capital. The typical party to bring in the new year was a melancholy occasion.
And this was not simply due to COVID-19; for the striking of the bells ultimately signalled the end of UK membership of the EU. Whilst Farage celebrated with a dram, Nicola Sturgeon instead let out yet another war-cry of defiance that has marked her recent years as the first minister. Perhaps slightly more modern than the stereotypes of William Wallace, but ultimately just as rebellious, her tweet left little to interpret.
Scotland has been kicking and dragging its feet throughout the tortured process – a feeling of unfairness in the process was the consensus amongst SNP supporters: the nation voted 62:38 in favour of remaining, but the country voted 48:52 to leave. But when the nation voted to remain part of the union just two years before Brexit, it unwittingly conceded EU membership to the rest of the UK.
And ever since that vote, the SNP has gathered in momentum in its seeking of another, that will likely reach a climax in May’s crucial Holyrood elections. The party’s slogans will be clear – independence and a reversal of England’s rule. Whilst perhaps hyperbolic, the feeling of Braveheart has been a cornerstone to SNP policy for years, but it has never been as well heard as now.
Of course, many fail to even consider discussions of independence, due to the undying stance of Johnson at the helm of government. But COVID-19 has allowed it to creep into public discussion once more.
Within COVID-19 regulations there has been an undercurrent of Sturgeon flexing her devolved powers, labelled a ‘disaster north of the border’ by the prime minister. Political commentators have been quick to note the slight deviations in policy within Scotland compared to England. Though typically aligned, it often seems a race between national party announcements. The devolution of powers has opened a can of saltire-face-painted worms.
Indeed, Johnson has been widely panned for nonchalance by the opposition, with the country bottom of the league of COVID-19 deaths as a percentage of the population against EU states. Contrastingly, Sturgeon has been juxtaposed to Westminster and praised for active and steady policy. Government policy has disappointed its devolved nations during the pandemic and has only further separated Scottish policy from England’s.
Johnson’s fleeting visit up north in July, the first since his re-election the year prior, has been the best indicator of the discontent found in the devolved nation. Panned by political commentators as a failed attempt to quell nationalist talks, it only added fuel to the fire, as polls suggested that the nation was now in favour of independence. Comparable to Edward II’s ill-fated excursion three centuries before, Johnson returned to England with his tail firmly between his legs.
Praise for Sturgeon’s use of devolved powers may be used as a smokescreen for SNP-planned international relations, but an impression of successful autonomous Scottish policy when compared to the UK as a whole will further pry open the independence debate. Ultimately, it will be a question of whether this praise will materialise into flocked support for the SNP, or simply just a criticism of Westminster policy. If the former, we could be heading to a serious push for IndyRef2, and ultimately a clash between Holyrood and Westminster. This may loosen the wheels of a ‘Global Britain’ before it has even begun.
However, under the cacophony of cries for independence, the SNP remains dogged by controversy and lacking substance to fully push for a vote.
It must be noted the contentious year the SNP has faced both behind the scenes and publicly. Former leader Alex Salmond’s retention in the public eye during his trial for sexual misconduct has forced his party to distance themselves. Derek McKay, a touted future leader for the SNP, was forced to resign over illicit allegations of texting a minor. And, in recent weeks, Sturgeon has come under fire herself, for breaking COVID-19 rules that she has been widely praised for implementing.
Idyllic pro-independence discussions of the likely success of a sovereign Scottish economy, that was central to the 2014 SNP campaign, have been empirically disproven in recent years. A flatlining North-sea oil industry and an unrecovered finance sector has meant the devolved power remains a net dependent of UK fiscal policy rather than a net contributor. Low barrel prices have scuppered promises of oil wealth, with Scotland’s fiscal deficit widening to 8.6%, three times that of the rest of the UK. Whilst the UK government, has stopped economic freefall with the furlough scheme that has helped save around 900,000 jobs in Scotland, despite being viewed as unwelcome overhanging public policy.
The rest of Scotland remains underfunded as the central belt grows, with clear geographical social inequality. This is only expected to widen further this year. Eligibility rules are expected to reduce the European working population by 85% in Scotland, further compounding present decreases in the highland population. Brexit induced immigration curbs are causing a ‘demographic timebomb’ in places such as the highlands disproportionately to the central belt, with Forbes reporting the area could lose a quarter of its population by 2046 as a result of the new legislation.
Furthermore, a difficult year of predicted grades has compounded the underperformance of Scottish schools in recent years, with the nation sliding to 19th in OECD rankings. Though the SNP has been praised for its COVID-19 regulations, the party can be criticised for a lack of policy to improve equality and education over its fourteen-year-long tenure in Holyrood.
And finally, though Sturgeon is building on a campaign of unity with the EU this is not a certainty. Likely Spanish vetoing of a membership request is being left unsaid in the preliminaries of IndyRef2.
If somehow overcome, the process will likely take years, with strict public policy guidelines required to re-enter. Consider Turkey, who have been buffered for decades. Risky consequences of disassociation with the UK treasury and a substituted uncontrolled currency in the Euro will cause worry for markets, which will not be alleviated by a likely hard border with England. Though Brexit has increased uncertainty in UK markets, re-joining will not lead to a reversal.
Opposition parties have criticised Sturgeon of ‘reopening the constitution debate’ to ‘divide the people of Scotland’ during a period of crisis. But with the pandemic expected to reach a long-awaited end, there is a clear path to push for independence in 2021. Sturgeon will be relishing the chance to materialise praise into results. With successful Holyrood elections in May, the SNP will believe it a mandate to push for another vote as indicated by the recently proposed legislation. And as indicated by present polling, the SNP is expected to ride out a difficult year and questionable public policy to sweep May’s elections. For the prime minister, it will be another unwanted headache to his tenure, if the cross-border relations go sour.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.