Coronavirus and the death of the UK: How Covid-19 could break up union as support for Scottish and Welsh independence surges

Campaign groups say people joining them amid disbelief at how badly Westminster has handled crisis

Colin Drury@colin__drury
Sunday 11 October 2020 15:05
A socially distanced rally for Scottish independence in Glasgow in September
A socially distanced rally for Scottish independence in Glasgow in September

It is a pandemic that has spread misery across the UK, brought the economy to its knees and looks set to stretch the NHS once more to potential breaking point this winter.

Now, it appears, coronavirus may have an even greater existential consequence: the break-up of the country itself.

Independence movements in both Scotland and Wales are seeing huge surges in support as an apparent consequence of Covid-19.

Campaign groups say more people are joining them because of a growing feeling the devolved administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff – which both have power over health policies – have handled the crisis better than Westminster.

The result is support especially spiking among those who, though theoretically attached to the idea of self-determination, had previously been unconvinced about the real-world benefits of going it alone.

Coronavirus has raised the question of good governance and I think a lot of people in Wales have now seen there is no question we could effectively govern ourselves,” says Sion Jobbins, co-founder of the Yes Cymru campaign group.

That group has seen its membership more than treble, from 2,100 to 7,300, since lockdown started in March, while a YouGov poll has found 32 per cent of people in Wales now favour a breakaway. A similar poll just 15 months ago found the corresponding figure was only 28 per cent.

Here, it seems, Welsh residents have seen first minister Mark Drakeford making life and death decisions, and, while not all necessarily agree with the 16 local lockdowns he has imposed, there is an emerging consensus that the country’s institutions have shown themselves capable of dealing with a major emergency.

“A lot of people coming to us are saying they have lost trust in Westminster because they cannot believe how badly it has mishandled the whole situation,” says Jobbins, a 52-year-old educational coordinator of Aberystwyth. “So, their natural next question is, if we have handled this crisis better than Boris and the Tories, why not look after all our own affairs? The empire has lost its clothes.”

If such numbers in Wales are growing, they do still, it’s worth reiterating, remain a minority – albeit an increasingly large one.

Not so in Scotland, it seems.

Two separate polls this summer indicate independence supporters are now in a majority north of the border. One survey, again by YouGov, had the figure at 53 per cent. Another, commissioned by Business for Scotland, reported that just 45 per cent of people would now answer no to the question, “should Scotland be an independent country?” That’s essentially a reversal of the 2014 referendum result.

“My own feeling is that support started to increase after the general election because Scots found themselves not only with a Tory government they didn’t vote for but also with the proposition of a really hard Brexit they didn’t want,” says Andrew Wilson, organiser with the All Under One Banner campaign group. “But that has just grown and grown since March.”

The reason appears much the same as in Wales: Scots have been both impressed by the way Edinburgh has responded to the challenge of Covid-19 and astonished at London’s inability to get a grip on the situation.

The contradiction in all this, perhaps, is that the decisions taken by Nicola Sturgeon – and, indeed, by Drakeford – have been broadly similar to those taken by Boris Johnson. The results, too, in terms of both infection and death rates, have run along largely similar lines.

Yet many believe the devolved authorities have been far better at communicating, listening and empathising. To some extent, support for independence appears to be rising on a question of tone.

“The manner and the conduct and the communication has been chalk and cheese,” says Wilson, a 52-year-old IT worker of Edinburgh. “Nicola Sturgeon has a very straight and honest delivery – sometimes slipping into Scottish vernacular – when explaining things, and that’s in sharp contrast to the prime minister who, when asked a question, starts waffling or quoting Greek.

“That means nothing to anyone, let alone in the middle of a pandemic. That gives no one confidence.”

The contention is supported by data.

Depending on the exact question and the exact time it was asked, polls suggest somewhere around 70-75 per cent of Scots think Sturgeon is doing a good job in difficult circumstances. Almost the same number tend to think Johnson is not doing one.

Crucially, in both Wales and Scotland, independence campaigners say there is also a growing number of people within unionist parties – the countries’ respective Labour and the Conservatives parties – who believe a separation is now the way forward.

“That’s the exciting thing from our point of view,” says Wilson. “All Under One Banner has always been cross-party but, naturally, it has always had limited – although some – support from Conservative and Labour members. That is changing. The beliefs within those parties are changing.”

Members of the pro-indy group All Under One Banner hold a socially distanced rally for independence in Glasgow

Coronavirus did not make such a shift in opinion inevitable, it should be said. Huge social jolts do not naturally result in the fracturing of countries. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“A lot of people thought that when the Covid crisis came it would actually increase support for the union because in tough times, Scotland does, historically, tend to turn back to the union for support,” says Professor Michael Keating, chair in Scottish politics at Aberdeen University. “So, it was reasonable to think there would be a rallying around the flag.

“If anything, from a historical perspective, it is a surprise that hasn’t happened.”

The question of why appears, once more, to come down to a feeling London has been found wanting.

With a different government in power, could things have been different? 

“Yes,” says Keating. “The complaint here, certainly, is that Westminster was not consulting enough or informing people before decisions were made … and that has led to a breakdown in trust.”

Going it alone would, he points out, remain a difficult proposition.

Neither Cardiff or Edinburgh would have had the finances to support the widely praised furlough scheme, which, so far, has saved hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Away from Covid, meanwhile, a separation in a post-Brexit world would probably require hard borders – something which it seems likely would disproportionately hurt the island’s smaller economies.

Pertinently, too, unionist feeling does remain strong in both countries. Rallies for independence in Scotland rarely take place without a corresponding union jack-waving demonstration in favour of maintaining the UK.

Yet, even with these issues taken into account, it appears increasingly plausible that when the pandemic is finally over, there is one more death to add to its grim tally: that of the United Kingdom itself.

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