https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/scot ... -c59fg9q25
Johnson’s failings erode case for the Union
Covid-19 would have been disastrous for an independent Scotland but UK government mis-steps have boosted the SNP
Tuesday June 23 2020, 12.01am, The Times
To state an evident truth first, Scotland was sensible to vote against independence in 2014. Or, to put it another way, the prospectus for independence presented by the SNP just six years ago would have led Scotland to ruin. This is not just because Scotland spends more than it earns or because the price of North Sea oil has plummeted, though neither of these truths help, but because the challenges of dealing with Covid-19 would have sunk the Scottish ship of state.
You will recall that the SNP insisted that Scotland would continue to use the pound sterling as its currency. This would not have been a “currency union”, for Scotland could hardly insist that the rest of the UK join such a project, but, rather, “sterlingisation”. Scotland would have “kept” the pound but the price of doing so would be doing so without a central bank of its own.
Last week the Bank of England announced it was injecting another £100 billion to support what’s left of the UK economy. Such are the times we live in that this seemed routine to the point of being, extraordinarily, modest. In March, before lockdown had begun but when it was already clear that the crisis was upon us, the bank pumped £200 billion into its quantitative easing programme. At a rough estimate, Scotland’s share of this support amounts to about £25 billion; money that would not have been available to the newly independent state.
These sums, of course, are in addition to the Treasury’s vast expenditure on various employment and job-retention schemes that are, for the moment, making lockdown possible, propping up living standards, and staving off an unemployment crisis. Independent Scotland would have had little choice but to introduce comparable schemes but its room to do so, and its ability to make its own choices, would have been sharply restricted.
So Scotland chose prudently in 2014. If the SNP’s timetable for these matters was to be believed, the new state would shortly be celebrating its fourth birthday. It would have done so in miserably astringent times. Its first decade was guaranteed to be difficult even if you believed the nationalists’ fantastical projections; reality would have been very much more painful than even pessimistic Unionists might have suspected. However, that was then and this is now and last weekend a new opinion poll suggested that 54 per cent of Scottish voters with a view on the national question support independence. This is not a live proposition. There is no imminent prospect of a fresh plebiscite on independence and no means by which the Scottish government could force one even if it was remotely prepared for such a tussle. Polling on the question is, for now, largely hypothetical.
And yet, even so, the trend is obvious and it bends in the direction of nationalism. The hard, cold, economic numbers may remain Unionist but Scotland’s culture is increasingly softly, warmly, nationalist. Nor is there any sign this will change any time soon. According to the Panelbase survey, 70 per cent of Scots under 34 favour independence. This is broadly in line with other recent polls. Most voters under 50 now support independence.
That trend, rather more than the headline figures on Yes or No is what should keep Unionists awake at night. Increasingly, young Scots feel little real connection or affiliation with the UK or any sense, vague or not, of Britishness. For many of these younger voters, independence comes as naturally as unionism did to their grandparents. You might wish it otherwise but you cannot wish reality away.
From which, once again, we might pause to note that the case for independence is not being won in Edinburgh so much as the argument for Union is being lost in London. As some of us have argued for some time, Boris Johnson is a calamity for unionism. It is not simply that he is incompetent — though he is and that scarcely helps — but that his government lacks the emotional bandwidth to understand the UK. If the SNP were asked to create the opponent of its dreams he would, I am afraid, bear a considerable resemblance to Boris Johnson.
So long as Nicola Sturgeon is seen to be performing better than Mr Johnson, voters will be shepherded towards giving independence a chance. An independent Scotland would make many mistakes and suffer its share of misfortune, but these would be our mistakes and our misfortunes. They would not, in whole or in part, be foisted upon the country by the likes of Mr Johnson. Brexit, naturally, is part of this too and trends evident before Covid-19 have been exacerbated and boosted by the manner in which the British state has dealt with the virus. All this talk of a “world-beating” response looks ridiculous now. Could Scotland not do a little bit better than that? Even if you voted No in 2014, you’d hope the answer to that is “yes”.
As it happens, the Scottish portion of the UK’s response to the coronavirus has been less impressive than many people think. Doing a little bit better than world-trailing England is not all that terrific even if it is also just about enough for many Scots. But our politics is played in relative terms, not absolute ones and Mr Johnson’s ministry feels remote and alien and increasingly irrelevant. No amount of blustering about “Global Britain” can disguise the fact Mr Johnson’s Britain is a lesser, not a greater enterprise.
That helps explain why some 40 per cent of Labour’s remaining voters in Scotland say they support independence. If the alternative is Etonian government, independence will seem an increasingly attractive proposition to the left. The election of a Labour government may persuade some of these voters to give the UK another chance but even this can no longer be assumed. A lot, therefore, hangs on Sir Keir Starmer’s success.
All that may be too late in any case. The damage is being done now. The No vote is not just older than its Yes counterpart, it is softer too. If there were a referendum this year or next, I would expect it to be won by those advocating independence. An appointment with certain unwelcome financial realities might concentrate some minds but culture is more important than economics and identity feeds and builds culture.
The United Kingdom is a “four-nation” entity but the virus has encouraged and reinforced local political affiliations at the expense of any sense of grander, collective, purpose. No wonder, then, that Ms Sturgeon’s administration has taken on a quasi-independent feel already.