Scotland readies for COP26 spotlight as political tensions simmer

Some see event as a chance to stake a claim for statehood, but the UK gov’t is reportedly trying to sideline Edinburgh.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is pushing for a rerun of Scotland's 2014 referendum on independence [File: Andrew Milligan/Pool via Reuters]

Glasgow, Scotland – When international leaders and the world’s media descend on Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, all eyes will be on Scotland’s largest city.

The 26th annual UN summit – also known as COP26 – has long been seen as one of the last chances to put the brakes on climate change and avert environmental catastrophe.

But while the likes of the United Kingdom, India, China and the United States thrash out plans to reduce carbon emissions – and build on the “historic” achievements of COP21 in Paris in 2015 – another, more British, struggle will be running in tandem.

When newspaper reports earlier this month claimed the Conservative Party-controlled UK government was seeking to sideline the devolved Scottish National Party-led Scottish government at the conference, SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon took to social media to respond.

“All that matters is that COP26 delivers an outcome to meet the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees,” Sturgeon tweeted on September 4 from Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, the home of the Scottish Parliament.

“We must work together and maximise contributions towards that. Anyone – me or PM – who allowed politics to get in way would be abdicating that responsibility.”

Tensions over independence

As ever, at the heart of tensions between Edinburgh and London is the thorny issue of Scottish independence, which, according to recent opinion polls, is supported by up to half of Scotland’s voting public and is the SNP’s raison d’être.

“The main division between the SNP and Conservatives is about independence and much else is subsumed within differences on this issue,” James Mitchell, a professor at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science, told Al Jazeera.

“The UK government wants to prevent the SNP using COP26 as a platform to promote the SNP and independence, and especially to prevent the SNP seeking to contrast [policy] attitudes and activities to embarrass the UK government.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is firmly opposed to Scotland breaking away from the rest of the United Kingdom [File: Daniel Leal-Olivas/Pool via Reuters]

For supporters of Scottish statehood, COP26 – postponed by a year until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic – is a chance to showcase Scotland as a nation in its own right, despite its electorate voting narrowly to remain in the UK family of nations in an independence referendum in September 2014.

Prominent pro-independence blogger James Kelly of the Scot Goes Pop blog told Al Jazeera that “COP26 is a Scottish-based event, for the simple reason that Glasgow is a Scottish city, and most people who live there regard Scotland as their country first and foremost”.

“So whatever the etiquette concerning the UK’s official status as hosts, the Scottish public themselves will expect some recognition of Scotland’s moment in the spotlight.”

‘Scotland can do things differently’

Sturgeon’s Scottish government has attempted to outshine British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Westminster government with its own climate change ambitions.

This includes setting a goal of delivering net-zero emissions by 2045, in contrast to the UK’s of 2050, and by recently signing a power-sharing agreement with the pro-independence and environmentally-focused Scottish Green Party.

The August agreement, which put Green politicians into government for the first time in the UK, was hailed by its many supporters as a statement of intent prior to COP26’s start date of October 31.

Nicola Sturgeon - reutersSturgeon’s administration has attempted to outshine Johnson’s Westminster government on efforts to tackle climate change [File: Russell Cheyne/Reuters]

Scottish Green Party activist Laura Moodie said the power-sharing deal “shows Scotland can do things differently” even if high-profile Swedish environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg last month disputed Scotland’s claim to be a world leader on climate change.

“Through the deal, we have ensured that transport spending will shift, renewable energy will expand and moves to decarbonise heating are accelerated, all of which are huge sources of greenhouse gas emissions for Scotland,” Moodie told Al Jazeera.

“Ultimately, though, the COP26 host country is the UK – which is going backwards in its response to the climate crisis. Boris Johnson’s government is investing in major road expansions, aviation and fossil fuels which is an embarrassment going into COP26.”

SNP urged to ‘get on with day job’

Supporters of the UK union have called on the SNP-led administration to focus on its devolved responsibilities, and leave COP26 to the UK government.

With the worst drug death rate in Europe, and Greater Glasgow and Clyde currently recording the highest drug-related death rate of all Scottish health authorities, Scotland should not seek domestic troubles, say Sturgeon’s detractors.

“The SNP needs to get on with its own competencies,” Iain McGill, several times an election candidate for the pro-union Scottish Conservative Party, to Al Jazeera.

“International stuff – that’s competencies for the UK government … The competencies that the SNP government has responsibilities for they’re abjectly failing at, like ambulance waiting times, and they need to get on with doing their day job and not look to pretend that they’re something they’re not on an international stage.”

Supporters of the UK’s union have urged Scotland’s SNP-led administration to focus on its devolved responsibilities and leave COP26 to Johnson’s government [File: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]

That said, no amount of opposition criticism will likely prevent Sturgeon’s administration from seeking to share the spoils during the 12 days of climate change talks in Glasgow.

With the new SNP-Green agreement propelling the prospect of a second independence referendum to the forefront of the Scottish government’s policy objectives, “we can expect the SNP to see COP26 as offering an opportunity to project a positive image of Scotland in contrast to the rest of the UK” said Mitchell.

While the big picture for all involved in COP26 remains tackling climate change, many pro-independence campaigners hope to secure a propaganda coup, too, not least in Glasgow itself where city residents voted Yes to independence seven years ago.

Kelly said: “The staging of the conference will be a success for the SNP if Boris Johnson walks into a trap of his own making by presenting himself as the head of an occupying force, carpeting the city of Glasgow in Union Jacks, and trying to eradicate all trace of the country where the event is taking place.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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