James Doleman looks at the potential constitutional crisis looming and sees no easy solution.
One glance at the electoral map of Britain after the General Election shows the sharp political divergence between Scotland and England. A sea of blue in the south, with a few isolated Labour holdouts and the Scottish Nationalists winning 80% of the seats north of the border.
A constitutional crisis seems almost inevitable.
While much of this is down to the vagaries of the first past the post electoral system – the SNP achieved its result by grabbing 45% of the vote – many Labour supporters are also now reconsidering their position. The hope of the party leading a government is now dashed for the foreseeable future, with even senior figures in the Scottish Labour Party discussing changing their position. Meanwhile, the Scottish Conservatives – who stood on a hard, anti-independence position and did not mention Boris Johnson in their campaign literature – lost seven of their 13 seats.
Brexit – which 63% of Scots voted against, including all council areas, which had majorities against Britain leaving the EU – continues to hang over everything. Despite it making no economic sense for an export-oriented economy dependent on immigration and has no democratic mandate at all, Scotland will be leaving the EU on 31 January and economic pain will surely follow.
So what now?
Despite the result of the 2019 General Election, Boris Johnson has been clear that he will not grant Scotland another referendum on independence – even though there is now a fundamental change in circumstances since the last vote of its kind in 2014. He has nothing to lose by this politically. It shores up the small base the Tories have in Scotland and plays well with his support in England.
This, of course, raises legal questions. Scotland is part of the United Kingdom voluntarily, that’s why the Scottish Unicorn stands beside the English lion on the Coat of Arms. Whether one partner could unilaterally cancel the Act of Union will likely be challenged in the courts.
Although most legal opinion has concluded that such a court action would be hopeless, the same was said of the prorogation case last year, in which the UK’s Supreme Court found that Johnson had unlawfully shut down Parliament.
Brexit is a sign of an England turning in on itself, trying to define an identity separate from the old British one. Even the left is attempting to create a new “progressive” view of Englishness, which excludes the other nations on the islands.
I spent the 2014 independence referendum in London. Then, the message in England was “we love you Scotland, don’t go”. I lost count of the number of people who would say that they didn’t understand why Scotland would want to leave the Union. The situation is very different now. Brexiters see losing Scotland as a price worth paying; “f*ck off jocks” being their dominant view. Remainers now say “we understand why you want out, can we join you?” It is hard to imagine the 2014 coalition against Scottish independence happening again.
This leaves the SNP with the problem of what to do. It has always had the unusual position – for an independence movement – of relying on the bigger nation to agree that Scotland can leave the Union, assuming the British can play fair. It is increasingly clear Boris Johnson isn’t going to.
Nicola Sturgeon is caught in a dual role. She is the leader of a rather dull, technocratic, slightly left-of-centre government, while also being the figurehead of a mass movement. Street protests were originally ignored by the SNP, but these have been getting bigger, with the last one held in Edinburgh attracting 200,000 people. An emergency march in Glasgow on 11 January will be a test of how big the movement really is. It is expected to be huge.
Scotland is now between a rock and a hard place. There is always the possibility that a sullen acceptance could set it. But the other possibility, if the UK Government does not shift, is a nightmare like Catalonia, with police on the streets, a population in rebellion, and a civic nationalism changing quickly into something darker.
Johnson may be riding high now, but the “Scottish question” is not likely to go away any time soon.