State of the Union: Catalonian Caledonia

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Recent polling north of the border reveals an interesting contradiction in the Covid-19 era of Scottish politics. The ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), despite a year of internal scandal and in the backdrop of Westminster’s successful vaccine rollout, remain as popular as ever. According to a Panelbase poll at the end of June, if a general election were held today, the SNP would gain four parliamentary seats. Yet in the very same poll, responses indicated declining support for independence, with just 48% in favour of an independent Scotland.

This is not the only contradiction. According to an IPSOS MORI poll in April, just 27% of Scots think Westminster has done a good job managing the pandemic, compared to 64% who approved of Holyrood’s performance. The Covid-19 death rate in Scotland, though lower than that of England, is still higher than Northern Ireland’s, while the SNP initially criticised Westminster for not joining the EU’s sluggish vaccine programme. Lockdown restrictions in the two countries have, for the most part, been very similar.

Leaving a three-hundred-year-old Union would be reckless

Nonetheless, the polling appears to suggest that, though Scots approve of the SNP’s performance in government, they do not think that now is the right time to go for independence. Such an inclination is understandable; leaving a three-hundred-year-old Union would be reckless. Scottish finances would struggle, now more than ever, without the favourable distribution of revenues delivered by the Barnett formula which sees English taxpayers subsidise Scottish spending.

This leaves Ms Sturgeon in a difficult position. Having promised a referendum in the May elections, she will have to act soon. But she cannot risk defeat for a second time. Further, the post-Brexit window wherein the SNP sought to capitalise on resentment to the 2016 referendum result may soon be closing. Covid-19 has deflated much of the animosity surrounding the EU referendum and has provided Westminster a blanket under which they can conceal their Brexit woes.

To add to her troubles, Westminster still has an ace up its sleeve. Any unilateral action taken by Holyrood to initiate a second independence referendum will almost certainly be challenged in the courts, and it is likely that they would rule in Westminster’s favour. Constitutional issues are, after all, explicitly reserved to the Westminster government under the Scotland Act 1998. Mr Johnson is no friend of the UK Supreme Court, but he may find them to be his greatest asset in preserving the Union. 

Any unilateral action taken by Holyrood to initiate a second independence referendum will almost certainly be challenged in the courts

Michael Gove, the Minister responsible for maintaining the Union has been loath to engage in any legal speculation. Even this Conservative government, with its prior disregard for some constitutional mechanisms, realises that such an event would be disastrous. If the courts in London were seen to override the voice of the Scottish populous, and worse still to override Scotland’s own judiciary, the very legitimacy of Westminster’s supremacy could be called into question.

In an increasingly polarised environment, it is not unimaginable that radical nationalists would ignore any unfavourable ruling from the UK Supreme Court. This could precipitate a constitutional crisis similar in scope and scale to that seen in Spain’s Catalonia. In 2017, Catalonian nationalists went ahead with an illegal independence referendum, resulting in the imprisonment of several politicians and the dismissal of the state’s government. The thought of a Catalonian-style ‘Indyref’ in Caledonia may seem ludicrous at present, but it will only become more likely if neither side yields. The Covid-19 pandemic has delivered Westminster more time and opportunities to convince Scots of the merits of continued Union. Its fallback position, however, remains as destructive and deficient as ever.

Image: hugovk by Creative Commons.

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