The National: How Covid has changed the politics of Scots independence

FROM the 2014 independence referendum to the rise (and fall) of Jeremy Corbyn, the Leave vote and Brexit crisis, British and Scottish politics has seen more than its fair share of political drama in recent years.

One could fairly argue that a period of quiet was long overdue. But the pandemic ensured that was never going to happen. And thus the drama has rolled on relentlessly.

Partygate is the quintessential case of political spectacle meets public health crisis, and could still take down a prime minister. And before partygate, there was Dominic Cummings driving to Barnard Castle to test his eye sight. What is it about posh boys who can’t grasp the concept that the public wants rules to apply to the rich and powerful too?

It is not in doubt that the pandemic has changed politics, but what is not quite so obvious is how it has changed the politics of Scottish independence. Amid the worst crisis since the Second World War, are Scots more or less optimistic about the prospect of Scotland standing on its own two feet?

The pandemic crisis: a ‘key moment’ for Yes?

Opinion polling tells its own story about how the pandemic may have informed views about independence. The initial reaction to the crisis was a surge in support for independence, with 20 polls from June 2020 to January 2021 all putting Yes ahead. According to journalist Lesley Riddoch, this reflected the confidence Scots had in Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership at the peak of the pandemic crisis when millions were tuning into her daily Covid-19 briefings, which they contrasted directly with Boris Johnson’s leadership.

“Remember, most of the time the two governments are lumbering away behind the scenes for most folk; the difference in policies are not obvious,” she said. “But at the peak of the crisis, you had compare and contrast every time you switched on the TV. People looked at these two governments and thought ‘you know, I’d rather be run by this one’, and that’s a big thing. Doubtless, that’s what brought the polls showing 55% for Yes, and those polls faded when Sturgeon was off the airwaves.”

That is backed up by Sturgeon’s personal approval ratings, which hit +50 in August 2020 but had dropped to +12 as of November last year. However, she remains the only leader of a major party with a positive rating.

Political journalist Jamie Maxwell told The National the perception of two governments handling the peak of the pandemic crisis very differently will have lasting effects on the politics of independence.

“We’ll look back on 2020 and 2021 as a key point in the independence debate, as it was a time in which a really important psychological threshold was reached,” he said.

“It helped normalise the idea of Scottish statehood. The crisis amplified the sense that there was no longer a British National Health Service, there was a Scottish National Health Service, an English National Health Service and so on.”

READ MORE: What are the last Covid-19 rules being lifted in Scotland on March 21?

Since the start of 2021, which also co-incided with the end of the post-Brexit transition period and the peak of controversy surrounding the Salmond affair, polling has been more mixed, but more in favour of No than Yes. Jonathon Shafi, an independence activist and commentator, says that a failure to rebuild the case for independence post-2014 is a key reason for Yes polls receding.“Boris Johnson has been the single biggest recruiting sergeant for the pro-independence cause during Covid-19 but the dial on independence hasn’t really shifted,” he says. “That’s because confidence hasn’t grown in the pro-independence arguments; the SNP have been dining out on how terrible 10 Downing Street is.”

Shafi, who produces a weekly newsletter called Independence Captured, points to the fact that the SNP’s official policy is still to endorse the Growth Commission report, authored by corporate lobbyist and former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson, as evidence of the problem. Wilson’s report controversially proposed a policy known as “sterlingisation”, where an independent Scotland would continue to use the British pound informally, meaning it would have no control over monetary policy, which would be set by the Bank of England.

“Had Scotland been independent under the terms of the Growth Commission, then we wouldn’t have been in a position to furlough workers at the start of the pandemic,” Shafi argues. “We wouldn’t have been in a position to make the big interventions the British state made at the Scottish level because of the sterlingisation policy.”

A ‘drama-fatigue’ problem?

Policy may be one problem facing the independence movement, but another is whether Scots are actually eager for political disruption in wake of the pandemic.

Polling by YouGov in November showed that across Europe, including in the UK, there is a trend towards greater trust in established authority and less eagerness for popular sovereignty. For example, the poll found declining commitment to the idea that “the will of the people should be the highest principle in this country’s politics”, surely a pretty important principle for believers in Scottish self-determination.

It’s not clear Scots are desperate to get to the ballot box. A poll last month found just 14% of Scots think an independence referendum should happen within the next year, while 20% think it should happen within the next two years.

Riddoch believes there may be a problem with “drama-fatigue”. “People are maybe saying ‘can we just not have a big thing that we have to decide on or deal with this year?’, she says. “And if you don’t see the leader of the party that has got independence on the tin pushing the boat out, you kind of think, ‘We’re not there yet, I don’t need to make my mind up, I don’t need to grapple with another complicated thing, because she’s not there yet’.”

The National: National Extra Scottish politics newsletter banner

Sturgeon has been clear that “Covid permitting” 2022 will be the year she “will initiate the process necessary to enable a referendum before the end of 2023”. Presumably we can then expect the boat to be pushed out sooner rather than later? Maxwell is not convinced. “No-one credibly expects it to take place, and as far as I can tell Sturgeon is simply paying lip service to the nationalist base when she says there’s going to be a referendum at the end of 2023,” he says. “We have been through this multiple times in the course of the last eight years. Independence activists have been marched up to the top of the hill and back down again repeatedly.”

Riddoch, who also says a 2023 referendum “looks unlikely” right now, believes any slippage on the timescale again will not be viewed kindly. “If it doesn’t happen it will feel like a major betrayal,” she says. “Yes supporters will feel that they have been stupid and used.”

A difficult time for the movement

Perhaps one of the biggest effects of the pandemic on Scottish independence is that it stopped the grassroots movement in its tracks.

Around 100,000 Yes demonstrators marched through Glasgow in January 2020 in one of the largest-ever mobilisations in Scottish history, and eight other All Under One Banner demonstrations were planned for the rest of that year.

But by March the only way the movement could mobilise was via Zoom, and it has been difficult to get the same energy back even as the pandemic has eased. “Covid has institutionalised the movement to an even greater degree and has allowed the gradualism of the SNP to become the dominant register of Scottish nationalism, in the way it wasn’t in January 2020,” Maxwell says.

For Riddoch, who has been active in the grassroots movement, the pandemic left a lot of Yes activists “scunnered because they couldn’t physically see each other and meet in the street”. Adapting to a different way of operating has had mixed results, she says. “Have activists developed patience or despair? Probably a bit of both. But people are slowly starting to get themselves organised again.”

Shafi says that there has been an “undeniable decline” in attendance at indy demonstrations but argues that the problems are as much political as they are logistical. “Influence campaigns on the SNP leadership have failed,” he says. “No matter what the party conference votes for, the organisation is so centralised that those kind of influence campaigns, generally speaking, don’t deliver in the end.”

What can the movement do instead to have an impact? Shafi believes a turn to “class issues” is necessary, highlighting the importance of a social movement to tackle the cost of living crisis. “That will have to involve engaging with large parts of Scottish society who perhaps do not want to mobilise on independence but do want to mobilise around the rising cost of rent, food, energy,” he says. “Through that sort of movement, grassroots independence politics can maybe be reanimated on a new basis, because right now it’s in a state of paralysis.”

For many, the paralysis they are focused on is at 10 Downing Street. Does Boris Johnson’s crisis, and potential downfall, open up opportunities to extract an indyref out of the UK Government?

Maxwell believes there are various outcomes which could potentially give Sturgeon such an opportunity: a General Election followed by a Labour minority government reliant on SNP votes; a “one-nation” Tory leader “who says if you want to leave, you can”; or a Tory leader who is simply “very politically naive” to the threat posed.

A lot will depend on how the First Minister responds to the crisis in Downing Street, Riddoch finds.

“People are expecting Sturgeon to be a bit more limber,” she says. “To look like she is trying to duck her way through. To get the Section 30 requested, which is the moment the entire London media has been waiting for, by the way.”

The pandemic has delayed any resolution over the question of Scottish independence, but all the old difficulties over how and when still remain.