(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Britain, it’s said, has had the worst of both worlds when it comes to the coronavirus. It has the highest excess death rate in Europe and the deepest drop in growth among the Group of Seven countries.
And yet the virus’s most enduring impact may be to the country’s constitutional settlement: The pandemic has driven a bigger wedge between independent-minded Scots and the rest of the country.
Scotland’s pandemic response has seemed like the height of competence compared to the frenzy of U-turns in London, and this has strengthened support for Scottish independence. If not handled carefully, Boris Johnson’s most enduring legacy won’t be Brexit, or his much-criticized handling of the crisis, but the dismantling of Britain’s three-centuries-old union.
The independence movement looked mortally weakened after the 2014 referendum, in which Scots voted to remain in the U.K. But according to a new poll, support for independence is now more than 55% — no doubt because of the growing perception that the Scottish National Party is a model of responsibility when compared with Johnson’s government.
This is partly due to the world-class communications machine run by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister. Her daily press conferences have given her visibility and she’s proved far nimbler than Johnson, leading on policy changes while Westminster follows. A YouGov poll in mid-August showed almost three-quarters of Scots think Sturgeon is doing very or fairly well. Johnson scores 20%.
In reality, Scotland’s record on the virus has been only marginally better than England’s. The SNP too has reversed course and suffered embarrassments. In Scotland, some 46% of Covid-19 deaths occurred in care homes — much higher than the number in England. But unlike Johnson (or his ministers), Sturgeon’s U-turns didn’t come straight after public pledges not to change policy, so Scots still largely trust what they’re told.
It also helps the SNP that Britain’s constitutional settlement can seem confusing. In the 1990s, Scotland and Wales were given their own parliaments and control over a large number of policy areas, from health care to education and transport. That allows Sturgeon to blame Westminster, which still retains power in many other areas, for problems but take credit for good news.
The pandemic has highlighted the flaws in this relationship and the breakdown in trust between Scotland and England over the years. Now Johnson has to fix their union or lose it altogether. His best chance may be to give the Scottish government more rope, not less, so that the failings are more easily attributable. But that can also become a slippery slope toward independence.
Since Johnson was elected, he has regularly championed the union in speeches and parliamentary appearances. His party, after all, is the Conservative and Unionist Party. In a trip to Scotland last month, Johnson reminded Scots that his government’s furlough scheme helped saved 900,000 jobs there and that the British military helped them build a temporary hospital. The problem is that Johnson’s mistakes have undermined his credibility and the attention has all felt a bit too late and panicked.
Scotland does very well as part of the union. It can spend and borrow more because it’s funded in part by the English taxpayer and the U.K. Treasury. Per capita public spending in Scotland is 17% higher than the U.K. average, whereas spending in England is 3% lower. New Scottish government statistics show the gap between what it raises in taxes and what it spends — more than 15 billion pounds ($20 billion) — was widening even before the pandemic.
Brexit makes the SNP’s case for independence even harder as it would probably create trade barriers with the rest of the U.K. Scottish membership of the European Union, if it was offered, would also mean substantial budget cuts and tax hikes.
Although the economic logic pulls against independence, the emotional tug toward it may be more powerful, just as it was with Brexit. The SNP argues that Scottish interests are best served by elected Scottish officials in charge of all Scottish policy. If the SNP wins next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections on a campaign to secure a second referendum, or Indy2 as it’s called, it will be hard for London to refuse.
And things could get worse. If the U.K. leaves the EU without a trade deal in December, any resulting trade problems will be seized on by the SNP, since most Scots opposed Brexit. Any agreement that sells out the interests of Scottish fisherman in favor of English bankers will similarly play into SNP hands. Trade talks with the U.S. and other countries will also be closely watched. If Johnson weakens U.K. food standards to win an American trade deal, it will be another fillip for Sturgeon.
But all is not lost yet. Polls show a majority of Scots see independence as a distraction from the important issues facing the country, including the economy and education. The SNP has been in power for more than a decade and its record has been poor. For example, Sturgeon pledged to make improving Scottish schools her top priority, but Scotland’s education is still a sore spot.
Johnson needs to highlight those failings better, while making the positive case for unity — and not just in Scotland. A YouGov poll back in 2011 found only 40% in England and Wales were opposed to Scottish independence. A Lord Ashcroft poll in October found that 51% of English adults polled “wouldn't mind either way” if Scotland voted to leave the union. Only 43% thought Scotland should remain part of the union, while 41% didn't have a view. That apathy ought to alarm Tories, as independence would leave Britain a much-diminished power.
Johnson set out to separate Britain from the union it couldn’t tolerate — with Europe — and reinforce the one it thought was indestructible. If he’s not careful, he’ll lose two unions for the price of one. That’s not a bargain but a calamity.
(Adds more recent polling data to 15th paragraph)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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