Scottish independence: Are unionists fighting a losing battle?

As the movement for Scottish independence grows, unionists face a tough challenge. But they still have hope the UK will remain united.

Recent polls have indicated that Scots are now ready to abandon the British state [File: Russell Cheyne/Reuters]

Glasgow, Scotland Gordon Brown’s sporadic interventions into British politics usually signal one thing: The rise of pro-independence sentiments in Scotland have reached critical levels of unionist concern.

So when the former British prime minister, born and bred in Scotland and forged in the unionist ideals of the Labour Party, last month warned that the United Kingdom could become a “failed state”, many fellow unionists sat up and took note.

Despite rejecting sovereignty by 55-45 percent in Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, during which time the ex-Labour Party leader made several important interventions on behalf of the union, recent polls have indicated Scots are now ready to abandon the British state in favour of going it alone.

But while Brown is today leading clarion calls for supporters of Britain to take seriously the threat posed to what he calls the “world’s most successful experiment in multinational living”, just how prepared is a wider unionist movement to respond?

“Some unionists feel like they are fighting a losing battle,” conceded Kevin Hague, a Scotland-based entrepreneur, pro-UK campaigner and chairman of These Islands, a pro-union think-tank.

The devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh has been controlled by the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) since 2007, and if current opinion polls are to be believed, could strengthen its political grip after elections to the body are held in May.

SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has promised to put a second vote on the matter to the Scottish people, who, she hopes, will give her party a parliamentary majority.

Sheena Francovich a retiree from Argyllshire on Scotland’s west coast, is among those who would fight back against Sturgeon’s bid.

Once a member of the SNP in her teens, she is today firmly pro-union.

She told Al Jazeera: “As far as I’m concerned, we had a vote [in 2014] and we voted to stay part of the UK and that’s end of story. Nobody has ever convinced me that [independence] would make any economic sense. If there was another vote and people did vote [Yes] it would be a sad, sad day.”

She added of Scotland’s last referendum seven years ago: “There was a lot of aggression between people of different views and unless I knew someone thought the same as me, I would never bring up [the issue].”

But with approval ratings that also tower above Britain’s Conservative Party Prime Minister Boris Johnson, especially in her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Sturgeon has reasons to feel optimistic.

That said, Hague told Al Jazeera while he is alive to the threat that could one day render the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England null and void, unionists have time to regroup and strategise.

“It’s absolutely true that those campaigning for separation have got more momentum and a greater sense of readiness for a referendum than those who would defend the union,” he said.

But, he added, even if the SNP were to gain majority control of the Scottish Parliament, and manage to legislate for a second independence poll, “there isn’t going to be an independence referendum anytime soon”.

Hague in part bases this opinion on the Scottish Parliament’s range of devolved powers, which does not, according to experts, include the competency to hold a legally-binding referendum.

Just as the SNP administration had to gain consent from the Westminster government in London to hold an independence vote in 2014, it would have to do so again, say observers.

To do anything less, Hague said, would risk a scenario akin to the Catalonia episode in 2017, when the Spanish government deemed illegal a vote for sovereignty after the autonomous northeastern region carried through with a referendum without the consent of Madrid.

But the SNP appears likely to press ahead in line with their recently-published “roadmap to a referendum”, pitting the administrations in London and Edinburgh on a head-on collision that could involve the courts.

Blair Jenkins, the former chief executive of the Yes Scotland campaign in 2014, said pro-independence campaigners across Scotland were motivated and ready.

With the polls already showing majority support for Scottish statehood, victory, if and when a second referendum is called, remains theirs to achieve, he said.

“I actually do think that there is more movement towards Yes once a campaign starts, because that is what we found the last time,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to his experience of the 2014 vote when the Yes campaign was repeatedly behind in the polls but made up ground. “And I think that is what will happen again.”

But some non-aligned observers have warned that neither side right now is ready to fight another referendum.

For a start, the staunch pro-union Conservative Party government at Westminster is disliked by many Scots.

“The Yes side has a motivated base but this is now deeply divided and internally at war,” added James Mitchell, a professor at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science, to Al Jazeera.

While Brexit has also given the pro-independence movement a boost, divisions within the SNP itself are threatening to derail their ambitions.

In the 2016 EU referendum, most in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the bloc, while a majority in England and Wales opted to leave.

Hague said his think-tank These Islands had conducted focus groups. They revealed that “a lot of the [Scottish electorate] who have switched to favouring independence are [pro-EU] voters who don’t like Boris Johnson and who think Nicola Sturgeon is a really competent politician”.

As such, and noting Sturgeon’s ongoing struggles with her one-time SNP mentor, and Scotland’s former first minister, Alex Salmond, which has spilled over into a full-blown parliamentary inquiry, and the party’s divisive debate over gender recognition reforms, Hague contends that unionist fortunes could revive prior to any vote.

“[We don’t know] what’s going to happen with the SNP in the next six months, let alone in the next two or three years,” he said. “So it’s quite possible that Nicola Sturgeon will not [even] be the leader of the SNP.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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