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Boris Johnson may have won the election but he’s losing Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon leader of the SNP. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

The election confirmed the divergence of Scottish and UK politics and could lead to the sort of situation which has ensnared Spain, says MAURICE SMITH.

There were no surprises when the phone rang at Bute House, the first ministerial residence in Edinburgh, last Friday. The caller was a triumphant Boris Johnson and he was in no mood for a conciliatory chat.

The prime minister, replete with a massive Commons majority and having scaled the so-called red wall of Labour’s traditional seats in the north, is indisputably in charge. And he was keen to emphasise that during his brief conversation with Bute House’s long-standing occupant, Nicola Sturgeon.

He told her, bluntly, that he would not acquiesce to her demands for a second referendum on Scottish independence during 2020. He described the 2014 poll result – when nearly 55% voted to keep Scotland within the United Kingdom – as “decisive” and told Sturgeon that her party should continue to honour it.

The SNP believes it has secured a new mandate for a second referendum. Last week the party won 48 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats, an increase of 13 on the 2017 result. They did so with even more than the 45% vote the Conservatives achieved across the UK. In Scotland, the Tories were the big losers: Their campaign was all about stopping the SNP, but they lost seven of their 13 seats north of the border.

Both sides are gearing up to start a by-now familiar dance. The SNP believe their case for a new poll is stronger than ever. Sturgeon says she wants one next year, rather than awaiting the Scottish parliament elections in 2021. Many of her party activists have been itching for a referendum since the 2015 general election, when the party swept nearly all before it in Scotland.

That pressure heightened a year later with the 2016 referendum. Scotland
voted to remain in the EU by 62% to 38%. Yet the No campaign had assured voters that the surest way for Scotland to remain within the UK was to vote
against independence in 2014. For all sides, the Leave vote was not supposed to happen.

SNP leaders have looked on in frustration as Northern Ireland took a belated centre-stage during British negotiations with the EU. While some in the region see the Johnson deal as a sell-out that will effectively create a customs border in the Irish Sea, in Scotland that is seen as the creation of ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland; the sort of status that Scotland argued for in the wake of the Leave vote.

There is no doubt that Johnson faces problems in Scotland – just as he does in Ireland, although the issues are distinctively different.

Since 2014 his party has presented itself as “the party of the Union”, emphasising its Unionist credentials, and seeking to take advantage of Labour’s decline in working class areas of the Central Belt by appealing to those voters with ‘British’ leanings. Under Ruth Davidson particularly, this was to be the Tories’ key plank towards a successful Holyrood campaign in 2021.

But Davidson reckoned without the Brexit vote, and miscalculated the appeal of Johnson amongst the party faithful in England. Having argued for Remain, and then against Johnson’s leadership bid, Davidson quit as Scottish party leader, and says she will leave politics entirely in 18 months’ time.

That leaves the Scottish Tories a little rudderless, lacking a charismatic local leader and back in decline. If this election was all about getting Brexit done, and preserving the Union, the omens are not good for the party north of the border. They attracted just 25% of the vote last week, down from 28% in 2017, even while Johnson celebrated his landslide further south.

There have been hints and briefings already that Scotland – a little like the north of England – can expect a Downing Street ‘love bombing’ during the months ahead. Johnson may turn his charms northwards, with promises of more cash for infrastructure projects, the NHS, and so on. The question is whether Scottish voters will remain impervious to those charms. Johnson – all posh-boy bluster and Old Etonian eccentricity – represents a kind of Englishness that does not go down well in Scotland.

On the face of it, then, Sturgeon has an easy choice to make – call a referendum, win a majority for independence, then start negotiating with London and Brussels for Scotland to leave the UK and join the EU.

Not so fast. The gift of referendum legislation lies with Westminster, not Holyrood. The 2014 poll went ahead on the basis of the so-called Edinburgh Agreement between Sturgeon’s predecessor, Alex Salmond, and the then-prime minister, David Cameron. It is going to take a lot to persuade Johnson to grant a second vote.

Cameron acquiesced because the SNP had won an outright majority at Holyrood in 2011. He calculated that a strong No vote might kill the independence argument stone dead. Although the No side won in 2014, the pro-independence vote rose from under 30% to 45% during the course of the campaign. Two years later, the Brexit vote undermined conventional assumptions about an electorate battered by austerity and political consensus shattered by the banking crisis and growing economic nationalism.

This week Sturgeon insisted that Johnson owes Scotland a second chance at independence. “It’s a fundamental point of democracy. You can’t hold Scotland in the Union against its will,” she insisted.

But what does she do if and when Westminster says no to that referendum? There are signs already that the SNP may wait until the 2021 Holyrood elections and turn them into a poll on independence. Both they and the Conservatives may be calculating that those elections offer new opportunities.

If so, the stakes will be high. This week the respected political academic professor James Mitchell, of Edinburgh University, said that there are three possible scenarios for relations between the UK and Scottish governments.

The first two were that some special status between Scotland and the EU be negotiated with Brussels – as has been done with Northern Ireland – or that a second referendum be agreed, either
with a Yes-No choice, or including a
third option for greater devolution of powers.

Mitchell’s third option – “grandstanding and megaphone diplomacy in which neither side is willing to compromise, trapping an existing increasingly disgruntled Scotland inside an unreformed UK” – is less edifying.

“At this stage, the most likely outcome is that both governments will go through the motions of the first scenario, focused on arguments about the second, but in reality take the form of the third scenario, added Mitchell.

Scottish and UK politics will continue to diverge, the politics of grievance will grow and a similar situation similar to that which prevails in Catalonia will be allowed to develop.

Mitchell believes that avoiding the latter situation will be one of the “most significant tests of leadership in these islands”.

The two main players have to decide the direction the Scottish debate might take next. For Sturgeon, it is about consolidating her claim to democratic correctness and her conviction that Scotland can take a similar leap – with independence – for which Britain has opted with Brexit.

She faces a prime minister who says he will not allow Scotland to leave the UK, or even to have a new vote on the issue. The question is just how much does Johnson care about winning an election, but losing Scotland?

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