According to the latest YouGov poll, the Yes vote leads by 51% to 49% and over two thirds of Scots think Nicola Sturgeon is doing well as First Minister. The SNP are in a stronger position than ever before and hence it was no surprise that in September, Sturgeon announced that her Government will set out a draft bill for a second independence referendum.
I remember, voting in the first independence referendum back when I was a 16 year old. It was my first ever vote and the one that sparked my life-long interest in politics. But a lot has changed since 2014; the economic landscape has been profoundly altered by Brexit and the price of oil has crashed. For many Scots the arguments at the heart of the first independence referendum, which resulted in a 55% to 45% vote in favour of No, have moved on. I recently spoke to renowned political scientist, John Curtice, who remarked that the case for independence can no longer rely on oil. However, he did add that it no longer needs to.
The fact that health and coronavirus restrictions are a devolved matter means that Sturgeon has been able to differentiate her administration from the UK Government, as demonstrated by her latest lockdown announcement. She has been perceived to be an excellent communicator, delivering a cautious and controlled lockdown strategy. Curtice has said that although there is “not a dramatic contrast” in the strategies of both leaders, and although both Governments have had to engage in u-turns, Sturgeon has “got away with it” whereas Johnson has not.
However the pandemic, and its impact on politics, is notoriously unpredictable. While Sturgeon’s capital has risen so far, that may well change – particularly as the financial cost of the global health crisis greatens. Additionally, the growing unpopularity of the Westminster Government among the Scots throughout the pandemic could potentially be mitigated somewhat through changes in leadership. Given his diminishing effectiveness as a leader, some may say that Boris Johnson could be replaced by a new Prime Minister who stands a better chance of winning an election. If we are to learn anything from the success of the unionist campaign of 2014, it’s that they don’t necessarily need to fight particularly well in order to fight a winning battle. Hence, if the Conservative Government was to emerge out of the pandemic with a less offensive leader, the Yes campaign will be facing a much greater challenge of persuasion than they do right now.
Not only has the pandemic sucked up and spat out the independence conversation, Brexit has also changed the state of play immensely. Curtice said the last 18 months have “proven that as long as Scotland remains put” there remains democratic issues. Boris Johnson’s recent, more aggressive approach in Brexit negotiations, such as the Internal Markets Bill which broke international law, has helped the Yes campaign. It demonstrated a disregard to multilateral Governments and a preference for centralised Government and power in Westminster.
A recent leaked recommendation for the Westminster Government has suggested that cooperation, compromise and devolution is the answer. The Conservative Government has sought to use devolution as a means of relinquishing blame for failure during the pandemic, but perhaps the long term outcome of this will be a loss of power. According to Curtice “devolution has become so much more visible because of the responsibilities to public health in the devolved Government”. He argued that “the UK Government discovered devolution in England when it was looking for cover” and can be interpreted as “implicit recognition” that while the centralised track and trace was necessary, it was not sufficient. The question remains of what the legacy of this will be in a post-COVID world.
It could be the case that we see an independent Scotland in the next few years. It could be the case that we see a more devolved Scotland. In any case, uncertainty, chaos and acrimonious constitutional negotiations won’t end with COVID-19 and it won’t end with Brexit.