If one were to read only the liberal British press, one would be forgiven for believing that such is the level of hatred for Boris Johnson north of the border, Scotland is currently marching arm in arm and row on row toward freedom — freedom, to be specific, from England, via a second independence referendum. But as romantic a notion as that might be, it is also a giant heap of haggis.
In 2014, we Scots were asked at the ballot box, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” At the time, some unionists complained that the framing of this question was prejudiced in favor of yes — which, as a word, has more positive connotations than no. (I don’t know why anyone worried about this, since Scots are among the most counter-suggestable people on the planet.) Evidently, these concerns were unfounded. Of the 85 percent of the population that voted, 55.3 percent said no to independence. This was despite efforts to galvanize the young, a demographic who were significantly more amenable to the idea. Though it lost the referendum, the governing Scottish National party had reason to be hopeful that next time — and by God was there going to be a next time — they’d win.
But then — Events, dear boy! Events!
First, a quick primer on Scottish politics. In 1999, the British government devolved certain political powers to the Scottish Parliament. Since then, Scotland has effectively had two governments — one in Westminster, London, and one in Holyrood, Edinburgh. The former controls macroeconomics, foreign policy, the constitution, immigration, national security, and employment. The latter decides laws and policies related to education, health and social services, the environment, agriculture and fishing (a big deal in Scotland), law enforcement, and housing.
This devolution was itself inextricably tied to a decades-long political shift in Scotland, as the Scottish historian Tom Devine has explained:
Between 1976 and 1987 the nation lost nearly a third of its manufacturing capacity. The great heavy industries that had made Scotland’s global economic reputation over more than a century disappeared in a matter of a few years. A post-industrial economy did emerge in the 1990s, but the crisis left behind a legacy of social dislocation in many working class communities and created a political agenda north of the border in marked contrast to that of the south of England. Rightly or wrongly, the devastation was blamed on the Conservative governments led by Margaret Thatcher. Scotland soon became a Tory-free zone in electoral terms.
By the end of the Thatcher era, the Conservative vote in Scotland had dropped 25 percent, and the Tories have failed to regain a foothold there ever since. The SNP, meanwhile, steadily gained ground through the 1990s, became the second-largest Scottish party at the time of devolution, and has governed as the country’s largest party since gaining power in 2007.
Nevertheless, in the 2017 general election, the Scottish Conservatives under the moderate and charismatic leadership of Ruth Davidson nearly doubled their vote share while the SNP suffered significant losses. As The Economist reported at the time, the results “redrew the electoral map, sweeping areas outside Scotland’s populous central belt. The north-east, south-west and the borders have patches of blue [Conservative]. Without the effervescence of the smiley, mouthy, sharp-witted 38-year-old [Davidson], the Scottish Tories would not have done as well; without those seats, Theresa May would not have been able to cling on as prime minister.”
But then, last month, along came the new prime minister, Boris Johnson, with his ridiculous hair, his unapologetic Brexit bombast, and his seemingly posh-boy Tory brand. It is no secret that Ruth Davidson is no fan of Johnson’s. Among other things, they profoundly disagree over how the U.K. should broach the possibility of a no-deal Brexit with the EU. Davidson and other moderate unionists worry that if Johnson won’t compromise on the issue and the economy suffers, the Tories could pay the price in Scotland.
There are hints of this already. A poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft in the wake of Johnson’s visit found that Scots favored holding a second independence referendum in the next two years by a two-point margin, 47 percent to 45 percent. One should, of course, be very wary of polls, all the more so when their results are so close as to fall within the margin of error. But good luck convincing the SNP of that.
The goal of the party, as expressed by its leader, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, is to hold another referendum by 2021 — the same year as the Scottish elections — come hell or high water. Under the terms set out in the Scotland Act, the law governing devolution, Holyrood would need permission from Westminster before such a vote could be held. So Sturgeon’s battle plan from here on out is to stir up as much anti-English — and specifically anti-Tory — sentiment as possible. In reality, independence won’t solve these problems any more than a bad marriage would restore an unstable man’s mental health. But as one might expect, Johnson’s long time in the public spotlight has left the SNP some valuable ammunition. Here’s the Guardian:
When Boris Johnson, as editor of the Spectator, published a poem in 2004 calling the Scots a “verminous race” that deserved “comprehensive extermination”, he may not have imagined it could come back to haunt him 15 years later in his first weeks as prime minister.
“The Scotch – what a verminous race!” begins Friendly Fire by James Michie. “Canny, pushy, chippy, they’re all over the place / Battening off us with false bonhomie / Polluting our stock, undermining our economy.”
The purportedly satirical poem is no longer available on the Spectator’s website, but it is remembered with cold fury by some in the fractured, but relatively conservative market town of Inverurie in Aberdeenshire. “If you’re at the receiving end to being likened to vermin, you’re not impressed,” Rae Jardine, a local Scottish National Party member, said with restraint.
This line of attack may be potent, but it’s also spurious. What century does Rae Jardine think we’re in? Does Jardine think that in 2019 Scots should be most concerned with some third-tier poem published by a famously hands-off editor over a decade ago? Should we also, like Mel Gibson, roll around in mud and paint our faces blue and white? Or should we, instead, turn our attention to a range of domestic issues that the SNP appears to be neglecting?
Scotland has the worst rate of drug-related deaths in Europe; it has increased 27 percent since 2017. The Spectator has noted that “this is a combination of both the UK welfare state and devolved health policies failing, badly.” But in truth the Scottish NHS is doing noticeably worse than the English NHS. In 2015, the Euro Health Consumer Index ranked England 14th and Scotland 16th out of 36 countries, despite the Scottish NHS’s spending £200 more per person than the English NHS each year. Scotland’s educational system is struggling under the SNP as well. The Scottish exam results — out last week — got worse for a fourth year in a row. More than twice as many disadvantaged English children as disadvantaged Scottish children attend university. The OECD report “Improving Schools in Scotland” found that “it is worse to be poor in Scotland than in any [other] part of the UK.”
And yet, the SNP is continuing its push for a potentially disastrous independence from the U.K., full steam ahead. Assuming that the EU did decide to welcome an independent Scotland back to the table as a smaller, much less powerful country, we’d not only have a new currency but trade friction with England — our biggest trading partner and, frankly, our economic life support — which would by then have left the Common Market.
Independence? Now? No thanks.