Boris Johnson Knows He’s a Gift to the Scottish Independence Movement – It Suits Him to Keep Giving

Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at Downing Street
Image via Number 10 on Flickr

The word “inevitable” has suddenly become ubiquitous in discussions about Scottish independence. This in itself is astonishing. Prior to the 2014 independence referendum, the idea of a full-blown divorce with the rest of the UK was a pipe dream which appealed to a hardcore of one-in-three voters. Rather than settling the question for a “generation”, however, that contest let the separatist genie out of the bottle. Support for independence surged during the campaign. The boundless energy of the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign and the closer-than-expected 55-45 result ensured that “the winners lost and the losers won”.

Yet, in the years that followed, the continuity Yes movement struggled to capitalise on this glorious failure. While the Scottish National Party rode the wave to a series of further election successes at all levels of government by monopolising “the 45%”, public opinion on the constitution settled roughly where it had ended up in 2014. A polling lead for independence in the wake of the UK’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union proved short-lived, and, while Scots had rejected Brexit by around two to one, the flavour of exit pursued by successive UK governments appeared to further weaken the economic case for separation. When it came down to it, would Scots really contemplate erecting logistical or physical barriers between Eyemouth and Berwick for the sake of trade with Luxembourg and visa-free travel to Estonia?

The UK has yet to leave the European single market, so this trade-off may not rear its head until it does so at the end of 2020. At this point, though, practical considerations seem unlikely to dissuade the Scots who have already made the journey from No to Yes. The status quo in public opinion has been significantly disrupted by the triple whammy of Boris Johnson’s premiership, Brexit itself and the coronavirus crisis. This cocktail – noxious to Scottish cosmopolitans – has shifted the attitudes of some voters in the risk-averse, persuadable middle and erased both class and gender divisions evident in 2014. The United Kingdom felt like a guarantor of certainty and security to these voters in 2014. But 2020 is a different world altogether. For reluctant Unionists who regarded their original referendum vote decision as one of head over heart, the events of the past year have conspired to resolve this conflict to the benefit of the independence movement.

This shift began in earnest shortly after Boris Johnson entered No. 10 in July 2019. A year later and a bit later, in the long shadow of lockdown, independence has emerged as the preferred option of a narrow but seemingly stable plurality of Scottish voters for the first time. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s immense personal popularity, aided significantly by the perception her government has handled the pandemic better than its Westminster counterpart, means Unionists are not only concerned about a hypothetical referendum but staring down the barrel of a very real thumping at the devolved election in May. While Sturgeon has been careful to avoid focusing too heavily on independence throughout the pandemic – she understands that less is more in that regard – her party will ensure the 2021 ballot is effectively a referendum on a referendum.

Even if the SNP themselves fall short of a majority, it is highly likely that pro-independence MSPs will continue to outnumber their Unionist colleagues, as indeed they have since 2011. Whether or not the SNP will need to rely on the help of a few Green MSPs is merely academic: the Scottish Government and Parliament will continue to agitate for a referendum with a renewed mandate and, in all likelihood, the Prime Minister will continue to rebuff them. The political weather, in other words, is unlikely to change. A referendum held under these conditions would be the separatists’ to lose, which is why Unionists are so keen to avoid one at all costs.

But time is also against them. While Angus Robertson is in hot water for making this point indelicately, demographics are undeniably on the side of Yes campaigners. The relationship between support for independence and age cohorts has always been linear, but it is getting even stronger as those who were too young to vote in 2014 age into the electorate. While we have to be careful generalising from relatively small sub-samples, the most recent poll by Survation shows that Yes supporters outnumber No supporters among decided 16-24 year-olds by a five to one margin. It’s not just about the youngest cohorts, though, since independence comfortably carries Scotland’s working-age population.

For all of these reasons and more, the new status quo in public opinion an air of permanence that evaded prior separatist convulsions. The challenge for the First Minister, her party and the Yes movement is to consolidate these gains. Luckily for them, the Prime Minister is happy to help.

The biggest problem of all for anti-independence voters and elites is that the United Kingdom’s survival and Boris Johnson’s political interests are currently at cross-purposes. The Union’s demise would spell the end of any Conservative Prime Minister’s political career. Theoretically, this should act as a bulwark against Scottish independence, and it has worked this way in the past. Back in 2012, the prospect of a separatist victory seemed remote enough that then-PM David Cameron was confident not only in agreeing to hold a plebiscite but in allowing his opponents to write the rulebook. He correctly assessed that refusal to play ball with a popular and assertive SNP majority government would ultimately damage his cause.

Unlike Cameron and Theresa May, Boris Johnson is not an especially committed Unionist. Indeed, May’s attempts to protect the Union with her Brexit deal ultimately undid her, whereas Johnson’s lack of regard for Northern Ireland allowed him to succeed where she had failed. Nonetheless, he is equally desperate to avoid becoming that Prime Minister. The actions he will take to serve this end, however, mean this incentive is now working directly against the Union’s long-term survival.

A second Scottish independence referendum held tomorrow would be a coin-flip. What will the odds look like in 2025 or 2030 if a walking caricature of a Conservative Prime Minister spends the intervening years obstructing the mandate of a popular and assertive SNP majority government? Given his apparent disregard for propriety, decorum and arguably international law, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Johnson is happy to be the architect of Scottish independence as long as he can avoid being seen cutting the ribbon. His antics as figurehead of the campaign to leave the EU and in his first year as Prime Minister have already – rightly or wrongly – damaged the credibility of practical arguments against independence. By stonewalling another referendum for as long as possible without doing more than paying lip-service to Scotland’s place in the UK, he may prove the single most important actor in the break-up of yet-another union.

Six years may not be a “generation”, but it is long enough that many of the sixteen year-old kids who were allowed to vote for the first time in 2014 are now university graduates. The intervening years have been eventful and, against a chaotic national and international backdrop, the stars have somehow aligned for Scottish nationalists. If Unionists think their best hope is to avoid having the argument altogether, they may simply find themselves delaying the inevitable.