Scottish voters are electing a new parliament this week, and again the pro-independence party SNP is expected to win. The vote could lead the way to the disintegration of the United Kingdom.
The man who hopes to lead Scotland to freedom walks with a limp. He just got released from the hospital, his feet safely encased in orthopedic shoes. But Mike Blackshaw, cane in hand, nevertheless shuffles past shelves containing Scottish honey, Scottish mustard and Scottish shortbread to stand proudly in front of his royal blue-painted store. “This is likely my last battle,” he says. “And it looks as though we will emerge victorious.”
It is a Thursday in mid-April at the Edinburgh Yes Hub. The meeting point is essentially the community center for supporters of independence in the southern half of the Scottish capital. And Blackshaw, whose rainbow-colored sweater is almost as large as a clergyman’s cassock, is one of the movement’s high priests.
The 72-year-old is from Grantham in Lincolnshire, where Margaret Thatcher was born, but he left England back in 1966. And when Thatcher came to power, it became clear to him that he would never be returning to England.
Instead, Blackshaw became a Scot, and a freedom fighter. “We are different from England,” he says. “More equal, more caring, more cosmopolitan.” He has been involved in all independence struggles thus far and has never wavered. He opened up his Scotland shop in 2014 after the first Scottish independence referendum was lost. Following that setback, tens of thousands of people joined the Scottish National Party (SNP) within weeks, and Blackshaw was certain: “There will be a second referendum.”
Now, seven years later, he doesn’t think the wait will be much longer.
On May 6, 5.5 million Scots will elect a new regional parliament. And there is hardly any doubt that the SNP, which has been in power for the last 14 years, will once again emerge with a decisive victory. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been refreshingly honest about what she intends to do once that victory is in the books: With a clear mandate from the voters in hand, she will explore all possibilities at her disposal to lead Scotland to independence. As such, she has said, this election will be “without question, the most important in Scotland’s history.”
The hurdles to a second independence referendum are high. Without approval from London, Sturgeon will likely be unable to hold a legal vote. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already said that he would block any attempt by Scotland to seek independence.
Still, everybody in Britain is now fully aware what Johnson’s promises are worth. Plus, even the government in Westminster has come to realize that a blanket “no” to a new referendum would be difficult to uphold, since it would only serve to add fuel to the independence fire in Scotland.
More than anything, though, there has been a “material change in circumstances” of the kind the SNP made a condition for a second referendum. Brexit. London pulled almost two-thirds of Scottish voters out of the European Union against their will. And many would like to return to the European family as soon as possible.
Even if it means rejoining as a newborn nation.
So is Scexit on its way? Are we going to see the end of the 314-year-old Act of Union, which launched the never easy but long successful marriage between Scotland and England? It would be the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom. The forces unleashed by Brexit would then be almost impossible to stop.
In Northern Ireland as well, which became part of the UK exactly 100 years ago and is a place where Brexit has triggered renewed violence, those in favor of Irish reunion would see momentum shift in their favor.
That would leave England and an increasingly recalcitrant Wales back within their 17th century borders and perhaps completely encircled by the hated EU.
A Fateful Election
For that reason, these regional elections aren’t any normal vote. Rather, the election could be a fateful one, not least for Boris Johnson.
For the past several months in London, it has been possible to see just how great the panic is when it comes to the future of Scotland. Back in late 2019, on the eve of Britain’s official departure from the EU, Johnson assembled a “Union unit,” made up of high-ranking officials, whose task was that of coming up with ideas to appease England’s neighbor to the north.
Not much came of it, but since then, Westminster has launched new initiatives at regular intervals, including a Union Policy Implementation Committee, a Union Taskforce, and, most recently, a Union Strategy Committee, the leadership of which Johnson has reserved for himself.
The Conservative government has even turned to the former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown for help. During his days as a journalist, Johnson wrote a column lampooning Brown, writing that he should never become prime minister “mainly because he is a Scot.” Now, Johnson is hoping Brown can help keep the UK from falling apart.
In the meantime, London has committed to “lovebomb Scotland” as it is said. Or, if need be, with money: To avoid the influence of the SNP, Johnson and the Tories hope to launch a number of multimillion-pound infrastructure projects in Scotland. Furthermore, hundreds of civil servants are to move from London to Glasgow to demonstrate the UK’s commitment to Scotland – which is also the purpose of the new government hub established in Edinburgh, where the London cabinet intends to regularly meet in the future.
Rarely before have so many people in London thought so intensively about Scotland. Unfortunately for the Brexit-obsessed government in Westminster, they find themselves in something of an argumentative quandary: For years, they have been telling the British populace that true sovereignty was only possible outside of the European Union and that warnings of economic turbulence were nothing but scaremongering.
Now, though, they are claiming that Scotland can only survive within the British union, and are warning of economic disaster should Scotland withdraw. In order to preserve unity, the Brexiteers are having to swallow their own convictions. That’s not easy, even for a politician with above-average pliability like Boris Johnson.
The Scots have thus far been largely unimpressed by the efforts Johnson has made to woo them. On the contrary, since the Brexit referendum, support for independence has risen significantly, burgeoning to 59 percent in the second half of 2020. The independence movement has slowed more recently, in part due to the accusation of sexual harassment leveled by several women against Sturgeon’s predecessor Alex Salmond. That has not, though, been enough to knock the SNP from its path, and the party continues to hold a dominant position in public opinion polls.
The Scottish National Party – which pursues a left-wing, social democratic agenda despite its name – has mostly Nicola Sturgeon to thank for that. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the 50-year-old has done all she can to position Scotland as a cosmopolitan alternative to isolationist Brexit-Britain.
Help from the Pandemic
Whereas the Tories have made their commitment to reducing immigration into something of a fetish, Sturgeon has invited the world to Scotland. And while London was involved in a never-ending conflict with the EU, Sturgeon – whose stoic composure is occasionally reminiscent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – developed close links with Brussels.
The first minister has garnered sympathy for that which she is not: She is not anti-EU, she is not conservative, and she is not Boris Johnson. The UK prime minister is so disliked in wide swaths of Scotland that he didn’t even bother to make appearances there during the campaign.
Even the pandemic has played into Sturgeon’s hands in a certain sense. Whereas Johnson seemed to spend months blundering through the crisis without a plan, transforming England into one of the worst-hit regions in Europe, the head of government in Edinburgh was single-minded and clear-sighted. Relative to its population, Scotland ultimately did no better in the crisis than its neighbor to the south, but the impression left behind by Sturgeon was that she could do it – and the others couldn’t.
And because regional governments are responsible for health policy, Sturgeon was able to sell her strategy as a truly Scottish approach. In the pandemic, the different nations operated as independently from one another as they otherwise only do on the football or rugby pitch. There was even a debate about reintroducing borders. Sturgeon’s threat to stop travelers from the pandemic hotspot of England at the border to Scotland became legendary.
The result has been that the idea of an independent Scottish state slowly took shape. “A new country, one where every person really feels represented and isn’t proud of their colonial and racist heritage.” That, at least, is Valentina Servera Clavell’s vision, as she sits on the windowsill of her shared apartment in southern Glasgow on a recent sunny afternoon.
She has just returned to her chosen home country from Barcelona and has to spend a few more days in quarantine. Then, the 22-year-old plans to jump into the campaign and focus on reminding “new Scots” of their right to vote. She, after all, is one of them.
Servera was 18 when she came to Glasgow for her university studies. And apart from the weather, perhaps, she sees no reason to ever leave. The Scots, she says, are “a bit crazy” and, like the Andalusians, have “salsa in their blood.” She says the Scots may soon have the unique opportunity to leave the “Empire Museum” called the United Kingdom and establish a modern country according to the Scandinavian example.
“Wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if the split up of the UK were to result in the split up of Scotland?” asks Galloway.
The even larger irony, though, is that Brexit opponents spent years issuing the same warning in an attempt to prevent Britain from leaving the EU.
Those warnings, though, went largely unheard.