Glasgow, Scotland – On January 3, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was interviewed by BBC presenter Andrew Marr.
Johnson had not accepted for a long time a post-Brexit trade agreement with the European Union, ending months of bitter bickering after the UK officially left the trade bloc on January 31 last year, and a COVID-ravaged Britain began 2021 on a track that had was first approved by the British public in the 2016 referendum.
When Marr turned to Scotland, Johnson bristled.
“A lot of people are watching this from afar, including in Scotland,” said Marr, after asking the Prime Minister about his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Why do you say away?” Johnson stepped back, as Marr tried to clarify his point. “[Scotland is] is part of our country.
The agitation by the leader of the Conservative Party, while subtle, was undeniable.
Led by the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) in the decentralized Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh since 2007, Scotland voted against becoming an independent country in 2014, but, after decisively rejecting Brexit two years later (when voters in England and Wales approved the move) he now appears to be straining under the lead of the British state.
Eighteen consecutive opinion polls, including one published on January 14, have indicated that the Scottish electoral public is now ready to accept independence.
Observers said there was little that Johnson could do to turn the tide and make the UK’s place outside the EU, now an established fact, acceptable to a skeptical Scottish electorate.
“I don’t see how the Conservatives can hope to sell Brexit to the Scots and, in fact, [they] are struggling to sell it across the UK, ”James Mitchell, professor at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, told Al Jazeera.
“On the contrary, I would expect opinion to change more and more against Brexit and the Tories in Scotland. It never took much to convince most Scots that the Conservatives are ‘anti-Scots’ no matter what they do. The longest [they] are stationed in London … support for independence may harden.
‘No more fear of staying in the UK’
While the UK as a whole voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU in 2016, Scotland voted 62% to stay.
As such, the pro-EU SNP, led by the fervent Europhile party leader and Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon, has long supported the idea of an independent Scotland re-entering the European bloc as a sovereign nation state to Scottish voters, who opinion polls consistently favor Sturgeon over Johnson.
Independence activists, injured after their 55-45 percent defeat in 2014, now feel the momentum could undo the old Act of Union that united Scotland and England to Britain in 1707.
“Right now,” pro-independence blogger James Kelly of the Scot Goes Pop blog told Al Jazeera, “fear [of voting for independence] seems to have evaporated. In part because Nicola Sturgeon’s manipulation of the [coronavirus] The pandemic reassured voters that an independent Scotland would be governed very competently, and in part because Boris Johnson’s clumsy response to the crisis made us feel we have more to fear from remaining in the Kingdom -United.
Is the UK Conservative Party government, which is expected to allow the Scottish Parliament to hold a second independent poll as a UK-only question, aware of the threat?
Yes, said Mitchell, but “all signs” are that the party is “not clear” on how to proceed.
Johnson has so far put an end to renewed calls for another Scottish independence referendum.
“Refusing a referendum seems the only answer, and it will become difficult to maintain if the SNP wins a majority [this May’s Scottish Parliament election] and the Conservatives are losing ground, ”Mitchell said.
“Even if a referendum will not take place this year, refusing to allow one … will probably be considered absurd and will only fuel the demands for a referendum.”
Alex Salmond scandal
It is not yet clear whether this year’s Scottish Parliament elections will go as planned in the current coronavirus climate, although opinion polls routinely predict the SNP would win by a landslide.
However, a closer look at Sturgeon’s party also reveals her own issues, including those related to Sturgeon herself, which could further derail the party’s primary focus.
Former SNP Premier Alex Salmond, who led his party in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, was acquitted by an Edinburgh court of multiple sexual abuse charges early last year – but he accused his former protégé, Sturgeon, of misleading the Scottish Parliament, calling the evidence she gave to a parliamentary inquiry into the handling of the assault allegations made against him “false.”
The case, which began when Salmond was charged with multiple sexual assaults in January 2019, has reportedly divided the SNP and irreparably damaged the long-standing friendship between Salmond and Sturgeon, who denies his claims.
He was also attacked by the pro-Scottish Union opposition, which insisted on exploiting the issue for political ends.
“Sturgeon is on his very last legs as a leader,” said Iain McGill, a Scottish pro-Brexit and union activist, who has represented the Conservative Party several times in various elections.
“I’m surprised she made it through 2021, and even… her predecessor and mentor Alex Salmond said she was a liar,” he told Al Jazeera.
He argued that if another referendum on Scottish independence took place, the Scots would remain loyal to the UK and reject the prospect of joining the EU as an independent state.
That said, supporters of Scottish sovereignty, now in post-Brexit campaign mode, remain optimistic.
“If a referendum were to take place tomorrow, there would probably be a yes, but of course when it does finally take place it will be in a very different context,” Kelly said.
“It will be a post-pandemic world, and the unionist parties will have had the chance to come together. So there is no guarantee, but we are certainly entitled to be much more optimistic than at any time in the past.
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi