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26 June, 2021  ▪  Michael Binyon

A fragile kingdom

What are the chances of success for the independence movement in Scotland

Is the United Kingdom about to break up? Most people overseas refer to the country simply as “England”. But although England is overwhelmingly the largest part, in fact the UK comprises four nations, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland having separate histories, identities and parliaments. Now, for the first time in more than 300 years, there is now a real possibility that Scotland, the large northern part of Great Britain, will walk out of the union and declare itself a separate country. Such a step would shake the foundations of British identity, cause years of political crisis and challenge the world to accept this newest independent European nation.

 The Scots have been agitating for greater independence and more control over their affairs for years. It was only in 1997, however, that the Labour government of Tony Blair allowed the Scots to have a referendum, in which they voted overwhelmingly to set up their own parliament and elect a Scottish government. The measure came into effect in 1999 – and gave Scotland the power to raise many of its own taxes and take control of local government, legal affairs, education, the arts, sport, transport, agriculture and many other issues that would no longer be controlled from Westminster. A Scottish government headed by a Labour first minister was elected and a parliament established in the capital, Edinburgh.

  The push for full independence however was not halted – and indeed was strengthened by devolution. For a thousand years, Scotland was a separate country, with its own kings and a long history of war with England. These wars were often bloody, and in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I arrested and later executed Mary, Queen of Scots, with lasting bitterness resulting in Scotland. But when Elizabeth, who never married, died in 1605 she left no heir. So the English parliament invited King James of Scotland to become King of England at the same time, and he moved to London. The Kingdoms were united but the two governments remained separate, and it was another 102 years before they were united in the Act of Union in 1707.

  Resentment of English domination has long burned in Scotland, however, particularly after the brutal military defeat of a Scottish rebellion in 1745 to try to install the Roman Catholic Scot, Bonnie Prince Charlie, as King in London. The resentment crystallised in the formation in 1934 of the Scottish National Party, which campaigned for full independence. For years it won few votes, until the 1990s, when it was led by a canny politician, Alex Salmond. In 2007 his party won the elections in Scotland and he became First Minister – the equivalent to the Prime Minister in London. He immediately pushed for a referendum on full independence, which was held in 2014.

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For a while, it looked as though Scotland would vote to break away. There was panic in London. No one advocated force to hold the country together. But London told the Scots that if they became independent, they would lose the huge annual budget subsidy transferred to Scotland from British taxpayers. They also said that Scotland would not be allowed to use the pound as its currency. This persuaded many Scots, and the independence movement was defeated – but only by a small majority.

  Salmond resigned, and Nicola Sturgeon took over as SNP leader. She is a skilled politician and immensely popular in Scotland. Two things have helped her: support for the Labour party collapsed completely, and Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, is deeply unpopular in Scotland, where he is seen as a typical English nationalist who comes from an upper class background with no interest in Scottish concerns. As a result, the SNP has almost complete control of all the Scottish seats in the Westminster parliament, and dominates the local government in Scotland. Ms Sturgeon has therefore promised a second referendum, and polls show that this time she might win.

  This time the political tensions are far greater. Johnson has said he may not allow a referendum – and Sturgeon said she would go ahead anyway. It would be a similar situation to the illegal referendum in Catalonia on independence from Spain. Brexit has also made things more complicated. Most Scottish voters opted to remain in the European Union. Scotland, together with the rest of the UK, left the EU in January when Brexit happened. But Sturgeon says Scotland will reapply to join the EU as an independent country. This would cause big problems in Brussels. First, Spain would probably veto this move, as it would set a precedent for Catalonia to join as an independent state. Second, Scotland would have to adopt the euro. And third, Scotland would have to set up a strictly controlled land border with England, as all external borders of the EU have to be rigidly enforced to stop illegal migration and to enforce customs controls.

  A land border with England would be a catastrophe for Scotland. Every train and car would have to stop for customs inspections. Local trade would be disrupted. Border communities would be split. And the many Scots living in England and the English residing in Scotland might lose their citizenship rights and might have to move back to their respective countries.

  Those Scots opposed to breaking up the UK are hoping that economic realities will again defeat the campaign for independence. The large income that Scotland has received from North Sea oil has already started diminishing rapidly as the oil fields in the seas around Scotland become exhausted. The removal of British budget subsidies would make it hard for Scotland to maintain its health and education services without big cuts. Scotland would also have to fund its own defence and foreign affairs budgets, which be costly.

   For the moment, the coronavirus pandemic has halted the nationalist surge. Ms Sturgeon has said that the priority now is to overcome Covid-19, and the effective roll-out of the vaccination programme across the UK has softened antagonism to London. Scotland, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, have been allowed to make their own decisions on when to lock down and when to introduce or relax control measures in response to the virus. This has given them a feeling of control of their own affairs.

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The SNP is also in trouble in its own territory. Its record in government has been strongly criticised, especially because of falling standards in health and education. The party has also been deeply split by a feud that developed between Sturgeon and her predecessor Salmond, over accusations that he has sexually molested women working for him. He was put on trial but acquitted, and then accused Sturgeon of trying to get him convicted. As a result he quit the SNP and set up a rival pro-independence party, Alba. It did poorly in recent local elections, as most Scots think that Salmond is a sexual predator.

  The danger for Johnson is that any move to independence by Scotland will encourage similar moves in Wales and Northern Ireland. In Ireland, especially, tensions are rising because of Brexit and the row over EU customs inspections on goods coming from England. Under the peace agreement of 1998, Northern Ireland could leave the UK and join the Republic of Ireland if a majority votes to do so. And the move towards reunification is now growing.

  If Scotland or Northern Ireland left the UK, Britain would face a crisis of identity. Its power and influence would be hugely diminished. There would be an economic crisis in England. And whichever government is in power in London would almost certainly be blamed and ousted from power. It is the greatest single political challenge facing Johnson now – and he has shown little sign that he knows how to handle it. 


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