More than anything, May’s local and Holyrood elections highlight an increasing trend towards localism. While we know that actual appetite for Scottish independence has dropped in recent years, the SNP secured a fourth term in Holyrood and pro-independence parties also secured a majority.
So what lies in store for the UK union? Is another independence referendum on the cards for Scotland – and are independence referenda possible in the other devolved nations?
Crucially, even if the UK remains united, will feelings of a shared Britishness prevail among the inhabitants of all four nations – or is that fellow-feeling little more than an illusion?
Backbench’s editorial team tries to answer some of these questions below. As ever, all opinions expressed are those of the individual editor, and not necessarily representative of Backbench’s view.
Boris Johnson appears to be doing the SNP’s work for them.
In April, Johnson dropped plans to visit Scotland ahead of May’s elections. The move fuelled suspicions that his unpopularity was feared to be toxic to the Tories’ campaign.
Sturgeon and Johnson have vastly different leadership styles, not least ideologies, with the pandemic only confirming this contrast. Their approaches to COVID didn’t go unnoticed by Scots, of whom an overwhelming majority (74%) believe Sturgeon has handled the crisis ‘well’, compared with just 19% for Boris Johnson.
Sturgeon has on the whole been careful not to exploit the pandemic to further her case for a second referendum. But in the first few months of this year successive polls showed a clear, if slim, majority in Scotland in favour of an independent Scotland. Sturgeon – and the independence cause she has dedicated her political life to – have surely benefitted from her leadership style during the pandemic, as compared with Johnson’s.
But a second independence referendum is by no means guaranteed. Johnson and the UK government are doing all they can to quash calls for another vote, with the prime minister launching ‘Project Love’ in the hopes of saving the union. Tactical unionist voting in May’s elections saw the SNP deprived of a majority in Holyrood, if only just.
And besides, Sturgeon has a way to go in convincing Scots that leaving the UK would be better than the status quo. Recent polls show that support for so-called indyref2 within the next five years has declined.
While Scots are clear that they prefer Sturgeon to Johnson, convincing them to go it alone – especially after the disruption and upheaval of the last year – will prove a mammoth task.
Strangely (for me, that is) I have no particularly strong feelings about whether the United Kingdom stays together as one Union. Practically, I think it would be ill-advised for Scotland or Wales to seek independence. Voters know that, and I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.
But, then we get to the North of Ireland, and things change. Not only do I think that Ireland’s reunification will happen in my lifetime, I also think that it should happen. Britain’s ‘claim’ to Ireland is one drenched in blood and colonialism, and I see no legitimate reason why Westminster should be so concerned with keeping some form of control there.
Allow me to be absolutely clear: the choice of reunification should be one for the people of Ireland, and their choice alone. If and when a democratic majority chooses such a path, either through election or referendum, it should be a choice free from coercion or manipulation.
This, of course, is true of Scotland and Wales, too. Like I said, I have no particularly strong feelings either way. But I know that the people of Scotland and Wales do.
For those looking to avoid the break-up of the UK, it is not enough to simply block the path to referenda. As Gordon Brown wrote in The Guardian, the kind of ‘muscular unionism’ that the Johnson government is currently imposing on Scotland is not the sort that can keep the UK together – certainly not in attitude or fellow-feeling.
A union is not just about legal ties; it is a question of whether the people who fall under the umbrella of that union feel connected, and, in this case, whether those people feel British. This is not just a Scottish phenomenon either; the pro-independence movement in Wales is rapidly gaining ground. The situation and demographic changes in Northern Ireland also indicate growing support for reunification with the mainland.
On the surface, this might suggest that an imposed Englishness is the problem; but look everywhere and you find increasing support for hyper-local forms of governance. The Yorkshire Party came third in the West Yorkshire mayoral election; dynamic Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen was re-elected in a landslide victory. While these statistics shouldn’t be mistaken for support for regional independence, they indicate that promises of local investment and local-centric policies have huge appeal.
If the UK’s union is to hold for the next 20 or 30 years, these local focuses may be the best way forward – and not only because they seem popular right now. If the UK can make people feel valued and invested in as it is now, as a union, then it is something that can be believed in. Without this belief, there is little to tie the UK’s countries – and England’s regions – together.
Being from England, I haven’t given much thought to the various unionist debates that seem to filter through political discourse. They all seem pretty pointless – as we are geographically part of the same Island whether we like it or not – so how does it make much difference? So much political energy, time, and debate go into Scottish independence when it could be spent on more pressing issues. Scotland has some of the highest poverty rates (including child poverty), substance abuse and early drug deaths. There needs to be more political energy spent on that.
Above all, it’s been less than ten years since the last referendum. It’s far too soon to be hashing out the same debate again – and that’s one stance I share with the Prime Minister. Brexit was a divisive force in politics that went on for years. We could have spent that time reversing austerity measures, cuts to public spending and tackling climate change. So, in a nutshell, I think it’s not a debate that should be prioritised, but I recognise its popularity. Whilst Boris is in power; I don’t think he’ll grant Scotland another referendum. Brexit has thrown open a can of worms in terms of separatism and countries governing themselves, so it wouldn’t surprise me if, in my lifetime, the Union was abandoned. But I don’t see the benefit of doing so, at all.