At the Scottish National Party’s recent annual conference, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she had “never been so certain” that Scotland would become an independent nation.
“Who do we want to be in the driving seat of shaping Scotland’s future?” she asked. “The Scottish government has not got everything right, far from it. But I doubt there are many people in Scotland who would have wanted Westminster to be more in charge of our pandemic response.”
Sturgeon was referring to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approach to the coronavirus, which has included a botched testing plan and repeated policy U-turns. With more than 63,000 deaths, the U.K. has the highest toll in Europe.
Johnson’s performance is one reason why the last 15 polls show that — for the first time — most Scots consistently support leaving the United Kingdom. A poll in October found 58% of likely voters backed an independent Scotland. That is a big shift from 2014, when voters easily defeated a referendum on independence by 55% to 45%.
As regional parliamentary elections loom in May, Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party is running on a platform of holding a second independence referendum. If the party does well — as expected — it will claim those results as a mandate and press the British government for a second vote.
Johnson has repeatedly rejected the idea. He says Scotland already had its chance in 2014 and the United Kingdom must stick together to fight the pandemic.
“This is not the moment, frankly, for division or distraction about our national constitution,” Johnson said early this fall. “In order for us to tackle the shared and common thread that is COVID-19, the focus on separation has got to stop.”
Scotland and England have a long and bitter history, and they’ve fought dozens of battles over the centuries. Scotland eventually joined England in 1707, in part to profit from its colonial expansion. But some of the economic rationale that drove the relationship faded in the 20th century after Britain lost its empire in the wake of World War II.
“You’re starting to see the economic benefits of union becoming less clear at a time when the British state was intruding,” says historian Fiona Watson. “These combined to see the beginnings, I think, of political Scottish nationalism.”
With many disappointed in the U.K.’s COVID-19 response, that nationalism is solidifying.
Distrust of Boris Johnson
Since April, when the U.K. was a few weeks into its first lockdown, Johnson’s overall approval rating plummeted from 66% to 34%, according to YouGov, the polling firm.
Johnson is a populist cheerleader; his many critics say he doesn’t focus on details. Many Scots, as well as others in United Kingdom, think he’s poorly suited to handle the pandemic. Johnson himself fell gravely ill in the spring, just weeks after visiting coronavirus patients in a hospital, where he boasted that he’d shaken hands “with everybody.”
“He’s a buffoon,” says Sandy Comfort, a retired lawyer in Kingussie, a town in the Scottish Highlands. “Totally out of his depth. He’s only in it purely for the power.”
Farzana Haq, a pharmacist who lives in Dunfermline, northwest of Edinburgh, thinks Johnson is a hypocrite. She cites the prime minister’s refusal to fire Dominic Cummings, his then-chief advisor, after Cummings drove across England while infected with COVID-19 in March, in violation of a national lockdown.
“We’ve been following the rules up here,” says Haq, who voted against independence in 2014, but says she will vote for it if she gets another chance. “It was heartbreaking for a lot of people when they learned that they could have just jumped in the car and driven to their parents’ house.”
Last month, Johnson finally pushed Cummings out for other reasons, but the damage to public trust was done.
While many Scots are critical of Johnson, they have a far more favorable opinion of Sturgeon, the leading voice for independence. In an Ipsos-MORI poll last month, 74% said Sturgeon had handled the pandemic well, while 62% thought Johnson had handled it badly.
Under Sturgeon, Scotland did make mistakes during the crisis. For instance, Scottish hospitals transferred dozens of COVID-19-positive patients back into nursing homes, already hard hit by the virus.
But many Scots, including Haq, gave Sturgeon high marks for what they say is clear and transparent communication.
“She’s prepared to come up and stand in front of journalists and take questions every day, and she’s prepared to put her hands up when there’s a mistake,” Haq says.
The Brexit factor
Concerns over Johnson’s handling of the pandemic are only the most recent factor driving support for Scottish independence. Another is Brexit, the issue that has dominated British politics for the past four-and-a-half years.
Many in Scotland feel betrayed by Johnson, the country’s Brexiteer-in-chief, and his Conservative Party.
Consider John Craig, who runs the student union at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The 24-year-old alto saxophone player voted to stay in the U.K. in 2014. He opposed independence because it would have meant leaving the European Union and all the rich educational and performing opportunities it offered musicians like him.
Anti-independence campaigners assured Scotland’s voters the U.K. wouldn’t hold a nationwide referendum on EU membership. But just two years later, in 2016, the U.K. did just that.
Nearly two-thirds of Scots voted to stay in the EU. But England — which is 11 times more populous than Scotland — backed leaving, easily outvoting its neighbor to the north.
“I hate admitting I felt tricked, but absolutely, I definitely felt tricked,” says Craig.
Citing the recent polls, Craig says he’s furious with Johnson for refusing to even consider a second independence referendum for Scotland.
“I feel like my democratic right is being blocked within my own country,” says Craig. “I have a democratic right to ask for Scottish independence. I feel like I’m ignored as a citizen in the U.K.”
There are financial advantages for Scotland to stick with the United Kingdom. For instance, when the coronavirus hit, the U.K. guaranteed Scotland an additional $8.5 billion in funding.
“I don’t want independence,” says Alex Jamieson, a retired police officer from Glasgow. “I think we’re better together. If we’d [have been] independent when this epidemic happened, we wouldn’t have the money … to get ourselves through it.”
Even so, surveys show that Great Britain is straining at the seams.
Like Scotland, Northern Ireland voted against Brexit. In the past year, polls have shown solid support in Northern Ireland for reuniting with the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU.
Discontent is even rising in Wales. A YouGov poll in October found nearly 1 in 4 people would vote for Welsh independence, up by 8% since 2016.
“The strongest argument for the union was always it’s what you know, it’s stable, it’s prosperous, whatever its faults, the U.K. works,” says Richard Wyn Jones, director of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance, who focuses on nationalism and the political dynamics of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. Brexit, he says, “throws all of that under the bus. Everything is now unstable.”
In May, political attention will focus on Scotland’s parliamentary elections. Even if the Scottish National Party does well, analysts expect Johnson will continue to resist another independence referendum.
But Ailsa Henderson, a professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh, wonders how long the national government in London can ignore the popular will.
“It’s very difficult if you’re saying to an electorate how you express yourself peacefully and democratically at the ballot box, no matter what you say, it won’t matter,” Henderson says.
NPR’s London producer Jessica Beck contributed to this story.
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