Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced on Sunday that she would be setting a date for a second referendum on Scottish independence within ‘a matter of weeks’. Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show she said that she would seek a section 30 order this year, after the latest poll on Scottish independence revealed support is now as high as 50 percent – a five-point increase in the same poll carried out last year.
Momentum for a second vote on Scottish independence has been building steadily since the Brexit vote in June 2016, as Scots voted to remain in the European Union, in contrast to the nationwide result that the UK should leave. Since then the governing party in Scotland, the SNP, has argued that Scottish interests in relation to the country’s future relationship with the EU have been ignored by Westminster. Not just that, but Scots feel betrayed. During the run up to the independence referendum in 2014, they were told by the Unionists that if Scotland was to leave the UK, then its future in the EU could not be guaranteed. Just a few years later Scotland is being taken out of the EU against its own will.
Feelings of resentment at how Scotland was being treated during the Brexit negotiations were exacerbated by the appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister in July, as he is widely disliked north of the border and seen to be embody elitist Conservative values which clash with those held by many Scots. His visit to Edinburgh not long after he had secured the post spoke volumes: not only did he not interact with any of the locals, but he made a point of exiting the First Minister’s residence through the back door so as to avoid any heckling from the crowd of protestors outside. As Martin Kettle wrote in The Guardian back then,
‘Johnson is a man who doesn’t care about Scotland, at the head of a movement that doesn’t care about Scotland either’.
Indeed, it almost seems that Scottish independence is a price Johnson is willing to pay to achieve his ‘come what may’ Brexit as there has been no real acknowledgement from him of the impending constitutional crisis that Scottish independence would represent. In a bid to ensure that Brexit goes ahead, Scotland has been left at the wayside, and very much feels it. To add insult to injury, it’s not clear at this stage whether Boris Johnson will allow a second referendum on independence. Already there have been signals that he won’t, having said that he would refuse to grant permission to the Scottish government – the section 30 order it is seeking – to hold another such vote.
Refusing to hold another vote could backfire on the UK government however. Nationalists are losing patience, with more and more independence supporters taking to the streets at weekend rallies to demand a second referendum. For many it is long overdue and they blame Nicola Sturgeon for not calling one earlier. If Johnson were now to deny it, it would only add fuel to the fire in what is already a volatile situation. Protests until now have been peaceful and positive, but who knows what could happen if Westminster were to obstruct a second vote. Scotland could end up embarking on a similar path to the Catalonians.
In what is becoming an increasingly precarious situation, some analysts have gone as far to draw comparisons with the collapse of former Yugoslavia. What may have been considered impossible just a few years ago cannot be ruled out now. Brexit has tested the boundaries and pushed the UK’s legal and political systems to the limit. The rules of the game, though unwritten, were always understood and adhered to in the past. Now the fact that the UK does not have a written constitution is being exploited in a way like never before.
And feelings of discontent are not reserved to Scotland alone. Indeed, it is now being suggested that along with the secession of Scotland could come that of Wales. In Wales the rise of nationalism has been arguably even more dramatic. Previous polls conducted around the time of the Scottish independence vote showed support for Welsh independence at no more than 3 percent. Recent polls show this has skyrocketed to as much as 40 percent, with Brexit being a primary factor. What is even more interesting is the distribution of Remain and Leave voters across Wales. Research has shown that the areas in support of remaining in the EU are dominated by native Welsh, whereas those in favour of Brexit are largely ethnic English. Such a division has the potential to deepen as native Welsh blame their fate on English settlers.
As the final attempts to achieve a Brexit deal are being made this week, Boris Johnson would be wise to take into account the repercussions for the UK constitution of leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement. All the signs show however that this is one Prime Minister for whom EU withdrawal must happen, whatever the cost may be to the 300 year old Union. And his heavy-handed approach to Brexit may well be repeated when it comes to Scottish Nationalism. The battle for independence it seems has only just begun.
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Johanna Ross is a journalist.