In 2014, a referendum was held to determine whether or not Scotland would break its union with England and continue as an independent European country. Despite two million Scottish residents voting ‘no’ (55.3%), the question of Scotland’s future within the UK has since remained foggy.
In the six years following the vote, the British identity has had something of a midlife crisis, based primarily around the messy divorce with the EU. There has been a rise in nationalism in all corners of the UK. Alongside this, the country has seen divides deepen on a multitude of polarising topics such as Brexit, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, trans rights and even the age-old debate over the monarchy, creating a fractious atmosphere.
Despite the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) ongoing popularity, polls that had previously favoured Scottish independence are narrowing. This seems to be attributed to a civil war within the SNP between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond. Such a distraction has seen the movement towards another referendum on Scottish independence lose some traction.
Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the global economy and add to the already considerable strain between Sturgeon and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Both England and Scotland are suffering from difficulties in the present and the uncertainties around the future. To understand where the UK is going, it is important to fully grasp its history.
What can be gleaned from Scotland’s past to determine the possible future of its place within the union? Is it really a head or heart decision that can be boiled down to autonomy over country or a prosperous economy? Will English nationalists welcome an opportunity to cut off its subsidised counterpart? Is the combined blow of Brexit and a largely unpopular UK prime minister enough to disenchant the no voters of 2014? Or will fractures within the SNP see the party dismantling and putting the brakes on a new referendum?
To answer these questions, among others, Investment Monitor looks to Scotland’s history within the union and its changing relationships through key landmarks in time for patterns and answers.
What caused the act of union 1707?
It can be argued that Scots were forced into union negotiations. As explained in the book Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present: “If the Scots refused to take part and discussions were not advanced by Christmas Day 1705, all Scots resident in England would forthwith be treated as aliens and the major Scottish exports to England of coal, linen and cattle would be banned.” Author of the book, Scottish historian Sir Tom Devine, calls it a “naked piece of economic blackmail”.
Leading up to the union in 1707, and for a significant period afterwards, there were riots led by anti-union conspiracists. The bulk of the conflict was a throne fight (between the Tudors and Stuarts) aimed at establishing sovereign dominance over the two countries.
In the late 18th century to early 19th century, Scotland was going through the fastest rate of economic transformation in Europe. Sir Tom Devine, author
This turbulence eventually settled, but on both sides of the border there was a lingering ‘us versus them’ mentality to overcome. A salve to this was the Industrial Revolution from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century, and the economic renaissance Scotland underwent around this time, as part of the union. With trade unprohibited, a sharing of innovative technologies and a free flow of people, Scotland strengthened its global position in this time.
Devine highlights this period as a paradox for Scots, who were conflicted over seeing their country do well as part of the union yet confused over what Scottish identity meant within the new alliance. He says: “It was paradoxical. In the late 18th century to early 19th century, Scotland was going through the fastest rate of economic transformation in Europe.”
Devine highlights manufacturing as a key sector for the country. “By the end of the 19th century, Scotland was one of the key sources in the world for heavy goods manufacturing, ranging from shipbuilding to heavy engineering, alongside steel and iron.”
Scotland had transformed at an extraordinary speed from a peasant-based society to a more modernised country. It was this change, brought on by the union, that led to a widespread identity crisis for Scots.
Devine says: “As [Scottish writer and historian] Sir Walter Scott put it, ‘What makes Scotland, Scotland is fast disappearing’. Such was the fundamental nature of the material changes that Scotland was threatened with the loss of its old traditional moorings to its past, its history – everything that makes a nation.”
As Scotland thrived, there was fear that England would have too big an influence on what being ‘Scottish’ meant. Yet, defining what makes a nationality is not straightforward.
Devine says: “A nation is not made by language, or by ethnicity. It is made by the fact that people think of themselves as a nation, and that depends on the historical influences. Whether those influences are real or true or false or mythical – that is what they believe. There was a fear of not only losing connection with past identity, but also the possibility of the elephant [England] having a direct effect on identity as well.”
It wasn’t just fear over the loss of Scottish identity; there was also collective fear over a possible loss of country. Scots worried that Scotland would cease to be entirely, and that eventually it would be known as ‘North Britain’, losing its history and prominence as an ancient nation of Europe.
Over time, a combination of England’s handling of and respect for Scotland within the union, an acknowledgement of the country’s heritage, and the advantageous free-trade opportunities that came with the union eventually alleviated these worries and led to Scottish people going some way to embracing Britishness.
Devine says: “What helped to keep the union stable between the end of Jacobitism in the 1740s and the later part of the 20th century, was that English politicians – whether they were Labour, Conservative or Liberal – had the sensitivity to accept that Scotland was a nation and the union had come about by consent.
“By the 1850s, the identity we had is what we still have to the present day – though it might now be in danger of crumbling – and that is dual identity. It is a hybrid identity of Scottishness and Britishness.”
This alliance and partnership, which required a balance of respect for both nationalities, continued, but the winds of change came in the 1950s, the last time the Scottish political scene had a Conservative majority.
Thomas Johnston’s post-war fight for industry
In the period after the Second World War, the mood in Scotland started to shift. Devine says: “Right up to the 1950s, even as late as Winston Churchill’s government, there was a sensitivity to Scottish interests. I don’t necessarily mean sensitivity in the sense of giving them additional powers – I mean respect. Respect in the fact that their own interests would be considered.”
To understand why the 1950s saw the balance of respect shift, it is important to understand which dominos were stacked in the preceding years.
The Second World War fundamentally changed the UK in myriad ways. In Scotland, the war had strengthened this dual identity of Britishness. It also saw Scotland’s industrial sector rise through increased demand for shipbuilding, iron, steel and war materials and this continued for the years following.
Despite being widely disliked in Scotland – particularly by Dundonians, who would boo when he appeared on the news in local cinemas – Churchill proved savvy to this delicate balance when he appointed East Dunbartonshire-born Tom Johnston to be secretary of state for Scotland in 1941.
Johnston gained devolved power for Scotland by manipulating the cabinet committee to believe that there was a real danger of a strong nationalist movement in Scotland. He advised that the way to avoid conflict between the nations was to ensure more attention was paid to Scottish interests.
As a result, Devine explains: “He was given a virtual free hand in Scotland.” Johnston also moved to maintain the momentum of Scotland’s booming industrial sectors. By pushing back against industrial production being focused too heavily in England, Johnston ensured Scotland remained a key industrial driver.
Devine continues: “[He] managed to attract 700 enterprises and 90,000 jobs north of the border through the establishment of a Scottish Council of Industry. By doing so he helped strengthen the union by demonstrating that political muscle was capable of exploiting the relationship to Scotland’s material advantage.”
Another of Johnston’s legacies for Scotland was an early version of the National Health Service (NHS). In expectation of war casualties, Clydeside hospitals that had been built in the late 1930s were ready for action. When the expected mass casualties didn’t happen during the war, the hospitals were repurposed to treat factory workers.
The hospitals proved so useful that according to Johnston’s Memories (1952): “By April 1945 we had wiped out the waiting lists of 34,000 patients on the books of voluntary hospitals… our scheme had been extended from the Clyde valley to all Scotland, and blazed a trail for the NHS of post-war years.”
With regards to unionism, Johnston’s legacy was to encourage devolution but with the caveat of keeping the union intact.
Devine says: “Johnston consistently argued that Scotland was neglected by government in London… [He] resurrected the idea of the Scottish Grand Committee sitting in Edinburgh and claimed that devolution was desirable, not for any reasons of nationalism but because there was not enough time in the Westminster parliament to deal effectively with Scottish business.”
Independence? Don’t you know there’s a war on?
While Johnston championed Scottish interests, he was very much against independence. In fact, independence was rarely championed in public in the mid-20th century.
At its conception in 1934, the SNP was not a party focused entirely on independence for Scotland. Instead, its objective was to deliver a devolved Scottish Assembly, which was more in line with Johnston’s views.
Between 1942 and 1945, Professor Douglas Young was leader of the SNP. Young was widely considered to be undermining the UK’s war effort by openly opposing conscription. This, combined with a general distaste for nationalism stemming from it forming the basis of the appeal of Nazism and Fascism, did not help the SNP’s cause.
The party performed particularly poorly in an April 1942 by-election, with the SNP candidate finishing last with only 5% of the vote. As a result, the party split between the followers of John McCormack, the creator of the National Party of Scotland and Scottish Convention, and those who devoted themselves to Arthur Donaldson and Dr Robert McIntyre. Devine explains: “Those who remained [with Donaldson and McIntyre]… decided to promote the cause of Scottish independence, not home rule, at all future elections.”
In his book Modern Scotland 1914–2000, Richard Finlay says of this time: “In effect, the SNP as we now know it was born.”
Despite the party clarifying its stance, it continued to have little political success. The party won its first parliamentary seat in Motherwell in 1945 as a result of a truce from the other parties, but lost the seat three months later in a general election.
Throughout the 1950s, Scottish nationalism struggled to gain a foothold and its supporters were left to resort to odd publicity stunts, such as the Stone of Destiny being stolen on Christmas Day in 1950.
The SNP was widely viewed as a peculiarity that was only of interest to Scots in dusty kilts, and as a result it continued to struggle for votes.
Ultimately, the SNP party didn’t have the resources or power of the British state behind it. Post-war Scotland, much like the rest of the UK, was focused on rebuilding itself and boosting its economy, so this left the Scottish looking for a party that could drive growth. The party that aligned itself most with those values was the Conservatives.
The Scottish Conservative majority
The 1950s commenced with the union seeming unbreakable. Independence or Union? cites a 1950 poll taken in Glasgow that “showed that the working-class sample in the city who were interviewed believed that they had more in common with their fellow workers in England than with the middle and professional classes in their own country”.
Glasgow in particular was a key industrial UK hub and widely considered ‘the second city of the empire’, due to its exports of steel and coal and its shipbuilding industry. In fact, shipbuilding was by far the biggest industry in Scotland in 1951.
From 1951 to 1964, the Tories ruled the UK. Following strong performances in Scotland in both the 1950 and 1951 general elections, Conservatives won a record-breaking majority in 1955 with 50% of the popular Scottish vote. In contrast, the SNP vote barely registered with 0.1%.
The Scots had arguably never had it so good. The country acquired 13% of all new manufacturing units within the UK. Scotland was in the midst of a housing boom with Devine explaining: “By the 1970s, Scotland probably had the largest share of public housing of any advanced economy outside the communist bloc.”
There were plentiful jobs, better wages, The Beano’s Dennis the Menace was created in Dundee, and new homes were built at speed. Scots were also in a better state of health following the 1948 birth of the NHS, and infant mortality rates were much lowered by 1960.
Devine says: “The 1950s was a decade of considerable material satisfaction for the majority and a time of dominant Britishness.” This bubble of joy was not set to last, however, as the wheels of a crushing deindustrialisation trend were already in motion. In his 1968 book Scotland: 1689 to the Present, Scottish historian William Ferguson argues that during this time Scots were living in “a fool’s paradise”.
The rebel vote and the SNP
Support for the Conservatives began to dwindle in response to the party’s failure to slow the growing deindustrialisation trend. Scotland once again delivered a Labour majority in the 1964 and 1966 general elections.
Dr Ben Jackson, associate professor of modern history at the University of Oxford, explains: “We were starting to see the effects of deindustrialisation working through the Scottish economy. There were particular concerns around industrial employment and how stable it was – although this was nothing when compared with how withdrawn it would later become in the 1980s and 1990s.”
There was dissatisfaction with the performance of the UK government, both Labour and Conservative… In Scotland that manifests itself by people rooting for the SNP. Dr Ben Jackson, University of Oxford
Labour was considered throughout the UK as the great hope for reversing the deindustrialisation trend. However, as the party struggled to meet expectations, voters looked for an avenue for rebellion.
In 1967, the Scottish football team beat world champions England at Wembley in the British Home Championships, but that wasn’t the only historic defeat that year that had the saltires flying. The SNP won its second ever Westminster seat when Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton vote in the 1967 by-election, this time without relying upon a truce from the other parties. At the time, Ewing was quoted as saying: “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.”
This could be seen as the first real victory for the SNP, but it is important to keep this ‘win’ in context. Ultimately, Scotland and England were still aligned in their voting patterns. Jackson explains: “There was dissatisfaction with the performance of the UK government, both Labour and Conservative. This creates more interest in voting for other parties. In England, you got more people voting for the Liberal party and in Scotland that manifests itself by people rooting for the SNP.”
Devine agrees: “The SNP first surfaced not as a result of a really collected will for Home Rule and certainly not at all for independence.”
Despite the motivations, the SNP winning the Hamilton seat was a significant turning point for the party.
Devine continues: “The Hamilton vote was the very heartland, the very epicentre of Labour politics in the west of Scotland – it was shattering. I think it was more dramatic than significant because the seat was then lost in the next election. The thing you have got to remember is that by the late 1960s and certainly by the early 1970s, the Tories had lost Scotland.”
The Tories did not go down without a fight. SNP’s Hamilton win caused concern for the Tories, who were watching their strongholds in Scotland dwindle with every election that passed. As a result, they became unlikely champions of Scottish devolution in a bid to win back voters. At the Scottish Conservative Party Conference in May of 1968, party leader Edward Heath committed the party to supporting Scottish devolution.
Devine says: “To the absolute horror of his audience, the Declaration of Perth, as it became known, reversed at a stroke an entire century of unyielding Tory opposition to home rule. The commitment was to prove ephemeral.” The opposition stance to devolution soon returned to the party.
Devine highlights that the chess game of balancing devolution with nationalism began to ramp up at the end of the 1960s. Labour were walking a tightrope between appealing to Scots who longed for independence and keeping the union intact. “They were trying to hammer out an acceptable form of devolution, that would not go too far but would draw the teeth of the nationalism monster which would bang at the door of the union,” he says. “That, of course, is how we ended up with the referendum of 1979.”
Labour champions devolution but slips on oil slick
As the saying goes, politics follows economics, and deindustrialisation was plaguing the UK in the 1970s. Manufacturing output had fallen from 10.7% in 1938 to 4.9% in 1973. In Scotland, Labour still won the popular vote in the 1970 general election, but it had fallen by 5.4% compared with the 1966 election.
Another key industry that made an impact on the SNP’s success around this time was oil. The discovery of North Sea oil off the coast of Aberdeen in the 1960s, and it subsequently ‘coming online’ in the 1970s, created a conflict of interest that the party were quick to grasp.
Surveys from the late 1970s confirmed, disappointingly, that two-thirds of SNP voters were not prepared to support the independence agenda. Tom Devine
An age-old argument against Scottish home rule had been that Scotland was too economically challenged to stand as an autonomous state. Now, with oil flowing into Aberdeen, this viewpoint could be challenged.
The SNP’s slogan of ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’ seemed to resonate with many Scots. Meanwhile, both Ewing (the Hamilton seat winner) and Margo MacDonald, who won the Glasgow Govan seat in the 1970 general election, were widely considered to be that rare breed of politician: approachable and likeable.
Riding on the back of these two factors, the 1974 February UK general election saw a turning of the tide for the SNP. The party won seven seats and 22% of the vote in Scotland.
There was to be another general election in the UK in October of that year, due to Labour only being able to form a minority government under Harold Wilson after the February vote. This time around the SNP pushed the Conservatives into third place in Scotland, securing 11 seats in total. The SNP had finished second to Labour in 30 other seats across Scotland, and the competition between the two parties was heating up.
These 11 SNP MPs became known as ‘the original tartan Tories’, as they went on to assist in the dismantling of James Callaghan’s Labour government, more on which later. Even before these actions, however, the Labour Party was rattled into action because of the emerging SNP threat.
Devine says: “Within a week, the incoming Labour government had embraced devolution as a real commitment, despite having fought the election on a platform opposed to home rule.”
Then home secretary Roy Jenkins was later quoted as saying: “The fundamental trouble was that the Labour Party leadership… saw the need for some devolution to avoid losing by-elections to the nationalists, and not to produce a good constitutional settlement for Scotland and the UK.”
Despite reservations over Labour’s motivations, many accepted their ‘halfway stance’ of more power for Scotland within the union – rather than full on independence – as favourable. In 1975, Labour published its Our Changing Democracy report, which proposed a 142-member Scottish Assembly.
This halfway approach continued to be popular in the 1970s. Devine says: “Surveys from the late 1970s confirmed, disappointingly, that two-thirds of SNP voters were not prepared to support the independence agenda.”
The SNP’s clear stance over Scottish independence and heightened power loomed larger than ever in the 1970s. Jackson says: “[In the lead up the 1979 referendum on Scottish independence], there was a lot of anxiety among Labour and Conservative MPs that there was an irreversible tide on the way and that something needed to be done to head off the nationalist vote. Devolution emerged as a halfway house between independence and continuing the way the UK was run before.”
Labour, therefore, followed through with its promises on devolution and the road to the proposed Scottish Assembly began in earnest.
Callaghan, Cunningham and the 1979 referendum
Labour’s proposal would create a Scottish Assembly, but with very limited devolved powers. By this point, James Callaghan had replaced an ill Harold Wilson as prime minister, and he quickly made it clear that the proposed Scottish Act and Scottish Assembly were a means to an end. There was a clear wish to lay to rest the recurring talk of Scottish devolution and the lingering threat of independence. Thus, a referendum on Scottish devolution and the introduction of a Scottish Assembly was agreed, to be held in March 1979.
In a speech made at the time, Callaghan said: “[If you vote ‘yes’ to devolution], you will take the first and most essential step to putting an end to a controversy that has distracted politics in Scotland intermittently for a century.”
It was because of the failure of 1979 and the angry reaction of the SNP members in Parliament that the time of the Labour government under Callaghan ended. Tom Devine
For Callaghan it was a huge political gamble to offer such a vote. Particularly given that Labour was on shaky ground. Devine says: “By 1977, the Labour government was weak in the extreme. It had only a small majority and from March of that year depended on Liberal support for its very existence.”
A group of anti-devolution Labour MPs introduced a number of amendments during discussions of the referendum in parliament. George Cunningham, then Labour MP for London Islington, dealt the hardest blow.
The Cunningham amendment – as it became known – stipulated that 40% of the Scottish electorate would be required to vote ‘yes’ to devolution, and a failure to do would mean that the Scottish Assembly wouldn’t happen. This amendment was passed on Burns Night in 1978. The following month the Scotland Act was agreed by the House of Commons, bringing to a formal close the lengthy discussions.
While the Labour party was expending much energy on the future of Scotland’s politics, the country’s economy was taking a battering. With mass strikes and bleak prospects, the overall mood in Scotland could be summed up as ‘driech’, meaning dreary and bleak. Devine explains: “Throughout the UK, more than 1.25 million were unemployed, the balance of payments deficit approached £1bn and annual inflation stood at 16%.”
On 1 March 1979, Scots went to the polls and recorded a very timid ‘yes’ to devolution, with 51.6% of the vote. The 40% caveat had not been reached and the referendum was seen as an anti-climax. With only 63.8% of the electorate turning out to vote, and the slim margin of victory, Scots had seemingly shown how little they valued devolution. There was barely a whisper for ‘freedom’.
In response, the SNP MPs withdrew their support for the Labour government and launched a ‘Scotland Said Yes’ campaign, which gained little traction within their home country. The Callaghan government was on its knees, however, as the winter of discontent, rising deindustrialisation, unrest in Northern Ireland and what was now perceived as a mishandling of both Wales and Scottish devolution saw its popularity plummet.
Devine says: “It was because of the failure of 1979 and the angry reaction of the SNP members in Parliament that the time of the Labour government under Callaghan ended.”
Indeed, the SNP tabled a motion of no confidence in Callaghan’s government, which succeeded by one vote, and 1979 general election was enacted.
Callaghan famously remarked that it was like “Turkeys voting for an early Christmas”. Many Scottish Labour MPs lost their seats, the Conservatives returned to power, and Margaret Thatcher entered the fray.
Scotland’s struggle for reinvention under Thatcher
John Lloyd, journalist and author of Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot, sets the scene. “Thatcher came in after a Labour government had run into crisis with both the economy and the unions. She had a mandate to push back the unions and to bring Britain back into economic order.”
While Thatcher stood at the helm in Westminster, Scotland saw its political landscape shift once more. SNP secured a measly two seats in the 1979 general election, the Conservatives moved into second place in Scotland, while Labour held on to its majority north of the border.
This marked another period of reflection for the SNP. Rumblings of disagreements on how best to steer the party, and country, towards devolution and eventually independence continued.
The argument for greater Scottish self-determination became more refined in the 1980s and 1990s. Scotland didn’t vote for the Thatcher government. As a result, this idea of a democratic deficit takes hold. Ben Jackson
Jackson explains: “The SNP was split. On one level, it doesn’t want devolution, it wants independence. So it has this argument within itself about whether there should be a sort of gradual path to independence through devolution or whether it should be a big bang into independence.”
At the SNP’s 1982 conference, these arguments came to a head. Members of the left-wing ‘79 Group’ – a faction that had formed in response to the failed referendum and which was openly critical of the SNP leaders – were expelled from the party. Notably, Alex Salmond was among them, although his expulsion was brief. Indeed, Salmond would be elected to Westminster in 1987 as an SNP MP.
With Scotland voting mostly for Labour, and the English Conservative vote meaning a party of a different hue would be directing the country, the nations were divided. This planted a seed of discontent, as many Scots harboured the feeling that Scotland was being ruled by Westminster Tories against its will.
Jackson explains: “The argument for greater Scottish self-determination became more refined in the 1980s and 1990s. Scotland didn’t vote for the Thatcher government. As a result, this idea of a democratic deficit takes hold.”
The no mandate argument – a notion that a party that failed to get a majority in Scotland had no moral right to rule there – grew in popularity over the 1980s.
Jackson says: “It is quite a powerful argument when it is coupled with the fact that there were massive changes happening economically and socially in the 1980s. Deindustrialisation at this point was hitting very hard. Politically, Thatcher’s government gets the blame for that.”
Lloyd weighs up how responsible Thatcher was for this. “The period between 1979 and the 1990s saw the North East of England, the North West, South West and the west coast of Scotland, along with Belfast – which had been a major manufacturing centre – all suffer very large declines. Scotland blamed, in a sense fairly, Thatcher, because after all she was in power.”
Lloyd continues: “However [it could be seen as unfair], because every industrialised country was suffering from foreign competition, which was growing fast especially from South East Asia, a resurgent China, and central and eastern Europe. Restructuring was inevitable.”
Devine clarifies his view on Thatcher’s impact. “The great Scottish industries had been dying for decades,” he said. “The perception in Scotland was overwhelmingly that the slaughter of those great industries was carried out by the Thatcher government. It does not matter whether that was a myth or not, that was what people believed.”
Alongside the decline of industry came a decline in quality of life. Devine explains: “There were a quarter of a million unemployed in Scotland by the mid-1980s. Then there was the terrible error of imposing the poll tax – a tax where everybody paid the same.”
Against the backdrop of failing industrial sectors, the poll tax was perceived to be particularly unfair for Scots, where it was imposed in 1989 – a year before the rest of the UK. Salmond was so verbal in his protest during the chancellor’s budget speech announcing the tax that he was banned from the Commons chamber for a week.
Lloyd considers the tight purse strings to be Thatcher’s largest mistake when it comes to Scotland. “Thatcher wore it like a badge of honour, the fact that there should be little to no state aid,” he says. “The state aid that had been pumped into Scotland by the previous Labour government was either reduced or even absent.”
Thatcher became a unifying enemy for Scotland’s parties, according to Jackson. “A sort of consensus begins to take hold between Labour and the SNP that there has to be a devolved Scottish Parliament,” he says.
However, on this score the SNP had an advantage. “Labour left itself open by being so anti-Thatcher,” says Lloyd. “It opened itself up to the argument, ‘OK, you are anti-Thatcher, but you can’t do anything about it’. The SNP could do something about it by getting Scotland out of the grip of the continuous malign Tory government that England elected.”
The father and mother of the Scottish Parliament
Despite the economic challenges facing Scotland, the country did follow Thatcher’s lead when it came to embracing service sectors. The 1980s and the 1990s marked an important period of reinvention for Scotland’s economy.
Devine says: “Scotland was going through a revolution that had no precedent since the first industrialisation of the country two centuries before. The number of workers in manufacturing, mining and agriculture fell by nearly one-half in less than five years between 1979 and 1984.
“The service sector grew exponentially. Making things, however, was not entirely dead. North Sea oil provided spin-offs in well construction, though these companies were not always able to weather the global volatility in oil prices. Electronics manufacturing – once thought of as the economic saviour of Scotland – made a recovery, and ‘Silicon Glen’ [the high tech sector of Scotland] soon produced 42% of the country’s manufactured exports by 1990.”
In 1990, Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister, and John Major took her place. Major was tasked with uniting the UK, but his policies were largely considered ‘business as usual’ following Thatcher’s exit.
It is difficult to think of any Labour politician who had the same commitment, background, stature or aptitude to deliver devolution as Donald Dewar. Tom Devine
Alex Salmond took the helm as leader of the SNP, just three years after entering Westminster. The SNP under Salmond was more aligned as it worked to shed any right-wing legacy and embrace a more left-wing view. Salmond continued his tenacious political style in his new role and set the lofty goal of ‘Scotland free by 93’.
This wish was not to be, and the SNP won a dismal three seats in the 1992 general election. The blue-red divide continued in Scotland, with Labour being the most popular party in the country, but the Conservatives ruling from Westminster.
The now leader of the Labour party, Argyll-born John Smith, quickly reinstated his intention to put Scottish devolution firmly back on the table, calling it “unfinished business”. Smith had previously worked under Callaghan on the original Scotland Act in 1979.
Labour politicians largely believed that Scots would view this move as the party putting their interests front and centre, and therefore contain any resurgence of the SNP.
In 1994, Smith died suddenly from a heart attack, to be succeeded by Tony Blair. Blair made devolution one of Labour’s flagship policies, and this long-held position of providing a safe middle ground by offering devolution as an alternative to complete control by Westminster or total independence seemed to prove popular.
This position, combined with growing distaste for Conservative politics throughout the UK, saw Labour win the 1997 general election by a landslide, winning a whopping 57 seats in Scotland. The Conservatives were wiped out, with no seats.
Jackson says: “Part of the success of Scottish Labour in that period is that it outflanked the SNP by marketing itself as the party that was protecting the interests of Scotland. It is going to do that with the introduction of devolution, so it occupies that space in a way that enables it to head off the SNP as a force. It is important to note that nationalism isn’t just a tool the SNP uses; the Labour Party, in particular, uses it as well.”
For the time being at least, the divide between Scotland and England politics seemed to fade. Lloyd explains how Blair endeared himself to Scots. “The Blair cabinet when it was first formed was composed almost half of Scots, much to the disgust of a number of English intellectuals.”
Indeed, Blair wasted little time in executing his devolution plan. He appointed Donald Dewar as Secretary of State for Scotland. Dewar proved to be an asset to Labour and to getting devolution across the finish line as a middleman between England and Scotland. He held a balance of embracing both devolution for Scots and keeping the union intact.
Devine says: “It is difficult to think of any Labour politician who had the same commitment, background, stature or aptitude to deliver devolution as Dewar. [He believed] home rule was meant to strengthen the union rather than weaken it.”
Four months after Blair had been elected into Westminster, a referendum was held in Scotland over devolution. After some deliberation, the SNP, under Salmond, backed the ‘yes’ campaign, working with Labour to see it through.
The vote asked Scots if they supported the creation of a Scottish parliament; unlike the lukewarm response in the 1979 referendum, Scots answered with a resounding yes, with almost 75% of the vote.
Devine outlines the contrast between the 1979 and 1997 referenda. “[Thatcher, the decline of industrial industries and the social repercussions of this] put a fire in the belly of Scots, which hadn’t existed in 1979. [In 1997] there were massive overwhelming majorities throughout the country, even in areas that had voted ‘no’ in 1979.”
There was also a surprising majority for the second question put to Scots in the referendum. It asked Scots whether they were in favour of the Scottish Parliament having the ability to vary income tax in Scotland. This gave Scotland more autonomy over its own purse strings than it had ever had as part of the union.
Almost three centuries after the Scottish parliament had been dismantled through the act of union in 1707, it was finally reinstated.
In 1999, the Scottish Parliament was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II and received its full legislative powers. First Minister Dewar gave an address, saying: “Today, we look forward to the time when this moment will be seen as a turning point: the day when democracy was renewed in Scotland, when we revitalised our place in this, our United Kingdom. This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves.”
Devine highlights that Thatcher acted as a catalyst for this parliament. “The Thatcher years meant that when a New Labour government came in under Blair, it did so with a massive majority – devolution was almost inevitable.”
Dewar also recognised the role played by Thatcher. When introducing Dewar at a dinner in his honour in Dublin, Tom Devine had introduced Donald as “the father of the Scottish Parliament”. Dewar argued there was no father, but there was a mother, and her name was Margaret Thatcher.
Devine says: “Later in conversation, he argued that if the 1980s could be counterfactually removed from the history of Scotland, he doubted whether there would have been a parliament in Edinburgh in the year 2000.”
Scottish politics in the wake of devolution
In 1999, Scotland held the first election for its devolved parliament. Labour won 56 seats, with the SNP in second with 21 seats. Labour was nine seats short of reaching the majority alone, so it entered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
As the UK entered a new millennium, opinions on the Labour Party in Scotland began to subtly shift. There was a growing perception that the party was arrogant and overconfident when it came to Scottish voters.
By the 2000s, however, Scotland was still firmly red. Devine says: “Labour votes were weighed rather than counted.” Yet, Labour’s approach and appeal to Scotland had always been reliant to some extent on its promise of devolution. Once delivered, what did the Labour Party have to offer Scotland?
Scottish Labour didn’t really adapt to devolution. It didn’t bring in leadership that was able to maintain the party’s status as a semi-nationalist, pro-Scottish party but not pro-independence party. Ben Jackson
Jackson agrees that Labour struggled to define itself in a devolved Scotland. “Scottish Labour didn’t really adapt to devolution. It didn’t bring in leadership that was able to maintain the party’s status as a semi-nationalist, pro-Scottish party but not pro-independence party.”
The SNP was also going through a regeneration. The party shifted leadership in 2000, when Salmond stepped down as leader. This followed a series of high-profile tiffs with other party members, and he was replaced by John Swinney. Salmond continued to keep a presence in Westminster.
As the UK progressed into the 2000s, New Labour, as it was known, initiated policies that alienated voters: the privatisation of some health services, reform in both trade unions and welfare, tuition fees (which would be later reversed in Scottish Parliament) and perhaps the biggest influencer of all, the war in Iraq.
Swinney was verbal in his disapproval of the latter and spoke at a Glasgow rally against the war that attracted tens of thousands of people. He called out Blair, saying: “Prime minister, one last time, are you listening to the overwhelming majority of the people of Scotland? Not in our name!”
Despite these challenges, Scotland remained red in the 2001 general election. Devolution had proved successful in quietening the roar for nationalism. Although the SNP’s performance in 2001 remained respectable it was not considered threatening.
Those inside the SNP at the time did not consider the result respectable, however. The loss of eight seats was a far cry from the much-hoped-for breakthrough. Swinney survived a first challenge to his leadership in 2003, but his days as party leader were numbered.
For a party whose main ambition was to break up the UK, the environment proved unfavourable in the early 2000s.
Devine says: “The union had never been so secure since the years before the Thatcher era of substantial political instability. There was sustained economic expansion in the UK, which not only generated material improvement directly but yielded for the Scottish Executive much more revenue.”
The 2005 general election saw the SNPs vote in Scotland fall from 20.1% to 17.7%, just two points ahead of Conservatives. This was fatal for Swinney and he resigned, forcing the party into yet another reinvention. After flirting with the opportunity publicly, Salmond returned to the role of leader of the SNP, but this time he had a co-pilot.
Surprisingly perhaps, Thatcher’s influence on Scottish politics arguably impacted this incoming chapter for the SNP. Thatcher unknowingly influenced a young Scottish girl from Ayrshire to go into politics.
The new deputy leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, once credited the former PM for her career choice, saying: “Margaret Thatcher, when I was growing up, represented much of what I thought was wrong in politics. So, in one way she is one of the people that motivated me to get involved, to campaign against the sorts of policies she pursued.”
The SNP rebrands under Salmond and Sturgeon
Devine says that the new millennium was a time of change for global politics. “What was developing in the later part of the 20th century across the Western world was a rise in populism; some people call it identity politics. Donald Trump’s ‘Make America great again’ is one recent manifestation of that.”
As priorities shifted across the UK – and the wider Western world – economic issues slowly began to recede in Scotland. Questions of identity and sovereignty began to hold more weight.
Devine continues: “The Labour Party, which was the dominant party in Scotland, didn’t really have a profile as an identity-based party, at least in relation to the SNP.”
Jackson adds: “Undoubtedly, the Scottish Labour Party after devolution made a lot of serious political mistakes. It created some of the space that allowed the SNP to gain support.”
The Scottish Labour Party after devolution made a lot of serious political mistakes. It created some of the space that allowed the SNP to gain support. Ben Jackson
Before the SNP could fully grasp how to exploit the opportunities proposed by Labour’s deficiencies, it had to go through a streamlining process. There was a period of readjusting the party’s values after devolution was delivered.
Devine says: “[Adjusting to the new Scottish Parliament] required the formulation of a range of policies in addition to its central aspiration of Scottish sovereignty.”
The party was adjusting not just its policies, but its overall approach and party make-up. Devine continues: “Below the surface of public events, the party was building a much more professional structure that in time would reap electoral dividends.”
This rebrand was successful. The lead-up to the 2007 Scottish elections saw then First Minister Jack McConnell defending his narrow five-seat majority as the leader of the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition.
The SNP won the 2007 election with a one-seat victory over the Labour Party. The SNP formed a minority government and Scotland had its first nationalist administration in Holyrood. The country’s political colour went from a red-yellow combination to orange.
Jackson says: “Scottish Labour ultimately paid the price for New Labour’s political mistakes. A more autonomously run Scottish Labour may have been able to take a more distinct position on issues such as the Iraq war. It would have cost the Scottish Labour party nothing to back a vote against the Iraq war in the Holyrood parliament. It would have been pure symbolism, but symbolism is important in these debates.”
For Labour’s lack of identity or symbolism, the SNP had not only found its version, but strengthened it and used it to successfully attract voters.
Devine says: “The SNP is the only party that robustly stands up for Scotland and that started to go down rather well with the electorate – that was one side of its success. The other side is that it became very professionalised. The SNP became famous for its cohesion and the dominance of the leadership.”
The SNP’s Scotland
Alex Salmond took the helm as First Minister of Scotland in 2007 following the election. As had been his political style previously, he continued to be a tenacious and at times abrasive force. The Scottish government’s early release of the Lockerbie bomber in 2009 on compassionate grounds was met with particular rancour from the US.
Between Scottish elections in 2007 and 2011, the SNP had proved itself to be seriously competent. It notably swiped a Labour stronghold in the form of the Glasgow East seat in a 2008 by-election and there was also a good result in the 2009 European parliament elections.
In the 2010 general election, Salmond had vocalised hopes that the SNP would increase its numbers within Westminster, but this was not to be. The threat of a Conservative win under Cameron was enough to drive Scots back to Labour. It became apparent that Scots were happy to split their voting personalities. When voting over Westminster, they voted Labour in a bid to keep the Conservatives at bay, but when it was Holyrood at stake an SNP vote was more likely.
Salmond stayed true to his robust nature in the run-up to the 2010 general election when he demanded to take part in a leader’s debate alongside Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron. When he was omitted from the conversation, he tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to sue the BBC. The SNP won only six seats in the 2010 general election while Labour racked up 41 in Scotland.
Despite this apparent failure, the subsequent Conservative-led coalition government under Cameron would eventually work towards the benefit of Salmond and the SNP on their quest for independence. Holyrood was the SNP’s ground now, and in the following 2011 Scottish election the SNP formed the first majority government in Scottish parliamentary history. The road to an independence referendum had never been so clear of diversions.
Jackson says: “[The 2014 referendum] is kind of a historical accident. The Labour campaign in 2011 was very bad and quite complacent. It failed to project anything attractive to voters and the SNP was viewed as the safe pair of hands, the competent government, and as a result it got loads more votes than I think most people expected it to get.”
This majority government came a shock, as many believed that the Scottish Parliament had been created to prevent parties from winning majorities.
Jackson says: “The SNP had a mandate to organise a referendum, and I suspect the SNP leadership were quite pessimistic about the outcome of such a referendum. They were in a position that meant they had to go for it. [Westminster] was happy to go along with it, because it believed it to be an easy defeat. That, in retrospect, was very complacent.”
The 2014 independence referendum
After the initial announcement of an impending referendum following the SNP’s 2011 landslide victory, things quietened publicly. Behind closed doors, meetings and strategies were being solidified in both Westminster and Holyrood.
In January 2012, Cameron announced on the BBC: “We owe the Scottish people something that is fair, legal and decisive… We will be setting out what the legal situation is, and I think we need to move forward and settle this issue in a fair and decisive way.”
Cameron clarified that his preference was to hold a referendum sooner rather than later in order to dismiss the issue once and for all. Salmond, who undoubtedly smelled the blood in the water, announced two days later that the Scottish independence referendum would be held in the autumn of 2014.
Salmond is a very clear-sighted politician – for all of his extremely grievous faults – and he saw that [a referendum] could be turned to his advantage, and so did Sturgeon for that matter. John Lloyd, author
Lloyd remarks on Salmond’s political style: “Salmond is a very clear-sighted politician – for all of his extremely grievous faults – and he saw that [a referendum] could be turned to his advantage, and so did Sturgeon for that matter.”
This lengthy lead time was designed to give Scots ample opportunity to consider their stance, on what would be the most important and critical vote on Scottish sovereignty in a generation – or that is how it was described at the time.
The SNP wasted no time in beginning its ‘yes’ campaign. With Salmond heading the party and Sturgeon a formidable deputy, all guns were blazing as the pursuit for independence got under way.
Although the ‘no’ campaign was relatively quiet in the beginning, its backers were quietly confident. The role of leader for the ‘no’ camp fell to Edinburgh South West MP Alistair Darling, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer in Gordon Brown’s cabinet. When asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr why the role had fallen to him, he answered: “None of the political parties outside of the nationalists were showing any inclination to lead… It is the old saying, if you want something doing, do it yourself.”
There were criticisms – mainly from Scottish Labour MPs – that his position as chairman of the ‘Better Together’ campaign would be damaging. This was due to the perception that Labour was siding with the Conservatives. Indeed, Darling’s position as head of the ‘no’ movement would have lengthy repercussions for Scottish Labour.
It was a divisive time for Scotland and more generally, the UK.
In the run up to the referendum, polls consistently showed that only a minority of Scots would actually vote ‘yes’, but as the vote moved closer, polls tightened, causing panic throughout unionist political parties. There was fierce debate and ambiguous questions plagued voters. Would Scotland qualify for EU or Nato membership? What would independent Scotland use for currency? What would happen to Scottish passports? What would a decapitated UK be called?
The biggest question, however, was whether Scotland would be better off as an independent country. Although no definitive answer was possible, as this was an unseen future, that didn’t stop fierce debate.
The impending referendum on the future of Scotland engaged people into debate all over the country. Friends, colleagues, family members and acquaintances all locked into lengthy political discussions in a way they never had before. This episode also brought out animosity for those of opposing sides and confusion for others who struggled to find their side.
Devine says: “Never before had the nation engaged in such a long and intensive dialogue about its present and future.”
On 18 September 2014 an unprecedented number of people in Scotland voted in what was billed as a ‘once in a generation’ referendum. Devine says: “Many who had never taken part in the democratic process at any point in their lives duly recorded their votes.” In the end, Cameron and the ‘Better Together’ campaign were successful, gaining 55% of the vote. However, the result was much closer than they had ever anticipated it would be.
Lloyd prophesises that had Salmond been successful in his alleged ploy for a third option, the results would have differed. “Salmond had pressed for a third option,” he says. “The options would have been independence, status quo or radical devolution. When polls were taken before the 2014 referendum, I remember seeing polls that showed that radical devolution was the most popular thing among Scots.”
Despite the SNPs attempts to dissuade him, Salmond resigned in the immediate aftermath of the vote. Although he failed to deliver independence, the referendum had undoubtedly solidified the SNPs voting base. In hindsight, his resignation is often characterised as a smart strategic move for the party that allowed for its continued success.
Scotland and the SNP did not need to look far for its next first minister. Nicola Sturgeon was elected unopposed. Sturgeon was now tasked with moving the party past the failure of the independence referendum.
Meanwhile, Cameron was celebrating his win, but it hadn’t been the landslide he had expected. For now, the union was intact, but instead of being strengthened it appeared shaky. As thoughts turned from the independence referendum to the upcoming general election in 2015, Sturgeon was busy making an impact as the leader of the SNP.
Lloyd comments on her political style: “She is admirable because she is strong. She is somebody that you can recognise. If, like me, you come from a small town, the kids of my generation, a few of them did quite well and went to university and others may have been envious, but they were also proud. She is exactly that; she exemplifies both intellectual rigour and she has done well from a lower-class background.”
If Salmond had excelled at breaking down doors, Sturgeon was more accustomed to politely knocking on the door and ensuring a warm welcome was incoming.
In January 2015, Westminster put into motion its plan to honour what was known as ‘the vow’. This was a joint statement from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties that promised more powers for Scotland. It had been a strategic play in the face of the tightening referendum polls.
The wording itself was fairly vague, promising “permanent and extensive new powers”. It was ultimately left to the Smith Commission (appointed by Cameron and named after Lord Smith of Kelvin) to figure out the details.
It is likely Cameron saw this as the necessary measure to take in order to stifle the growing nationalism in Scotland. When he unveiled the new powers in Edinburgh that January, he announced it was “a great day for Scotland and a great day for the United Kingdom too”.
In the following 2015 general election, the SNP dominated Scotland, with 56 SNP MPs elected. This began a trend of the SNP being the third-largest political party in the UK, which has continued through to the 2019 general election.
Scottish Labour felt the consequences of its role in the ‘Better Together’ campaign. Devine explains: “Labour had been in retreat north of the border for some time, but the referendum campaign seems to have been a kind of tipping point.” Swings from Labour to the SNP were in excess of 30%.
Scotland turned yellow and the divide between Scottish and English politics became stark. Cameron held on to his role of prime minister with the Conservatives winning an unexpected majority, meaning the party would form its first non-coalition government since its loss to Blair in 1997.
Perhaps bolstered by successes in both the Scottish independence referendum and the general election, Cameron set his sights on another referendum.
The Brexit divide
Cameron had made promises to address rising concerns over the UK’s EU membership during his 2015 election campaign. Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party had seen its influence rise, even though its elected MPs were few and far between. This, combined with pressure from Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party, saw Cameron announce a referendum on the UK’s membership within the EU.
This vote would prove crucial in further dividing the UK, and indeed the union, when it came to political thinking and ethos. After the vote was taken in 2016, reports stated that the UK had opted to leave the EU. When looking at the political map however, it was clear that the UK was split. England had voted to leave the EU and Scotland (which had resoundingly voted to remain) was bound to follow.
Cameron, who had been campaigning for remain, resigned stating that he did not feel he was the right prime minister to lead the UK out of the EU. As a rota of wannabe Conservative prime ministers filled news coverage, Scotland remained constant. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP stood as an unwavering presence in Scotland, representing a country that had an unwavering opinion regarding the outcome of this referendum.
What produced Brexit was not economic advantage or disadvantage, it was identity and sovereignty… [Brexit was] the first demonstration of the muscle of English nationalism. Tom Devine
Almost immediately, Sturgeon made clear her intentions to throw out the ‘once in a generation’ caveat of the previous independence referendum. Sturgeon firmly believed that the question of Scotland’s place within the UK should be firmly back on the table given the UK’s exit from the EU.
The idea of Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will was impactful. Interestingly, Devine believes that the motivations that bred the Brexit result were not dissimilar to what bred support for the SNP and independence. “What produced Brexit was not economic advantage or disadvantage, it was identity and sovereignty… [Brexit was] the first demonstration of the muscle of English nationalism,” he says.
Lloyd adds: “Brexit happened in part as a reaction against immigration, not necessarily a racist one, but clearly if you are racist you would vote Brexit. You would vote Brexit as a reaction against the endless promises by governments that they would cut back on immigration.”
Lloyd adds that identity politics played a part. “Often [people explain their Brexit vote by saying] they wanted British laws in the British parliament. We want a British or English parliament to be the centre of our politics and we don’t want to be ruled by Brussels.”
Jackson outlines the differences in the nationalistic drives of voting either side of the border. “The Labour areas in England that voted for Brexit were predominately in the north of England and had seen high levels of deindustrialisation. It is interesting that there are areas in the central belt of Scotland that are basically economically and socially very similar to these, yet they voted remain.
“This Scottish version of nationalism has been constructed as a pro-European nationalism, a sort of small-state nationalism that is more comfortable with the idea of sharing power as part of a multinational organisation. Whereas English or British nationalism is less comfortable with that; it is big state nationalism versus small state nationalism.”
May, Johnson and Brexit
The UK’s second female prime minister, Theresa May, entered Number Ten Downing Street in July 2016. She came in with a clear mandate to get Brexit done, and soon made her intention clear to support those “just getting by”.
Some were surprised at the appointment of May to captain the Brexit boat, as she had opposed leaving the EU. This stance plagued her premiership. She was known for parroting phrases – “Brexit means Brexit” and “strong and stable” – as she worked to unite Westminster to get her Brexit deal through.
The day before Article 50 was triggered in March 2017, Sturgeon threw her gauntlet down and formally requested consent from Westminster to hold another referendum. May declined on the basis that “now is not the time”.
In 2017, a snap election was called and the results left a stain on May’s premiership. The Conservative Party lost its overall majority and it entered into a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
The election was also a disappointment for the SNP, which lost 21 seats. Perhaps more shocking than the sliding of popularity for the party was the rise of the Conservatives. The party gained 13 seats, overtaking Labour, which had won seven seats, to become the second-largest party in Scotland.
A key reason given for the shift in voting was that with Scottish Labour and the SNP both openly backing independence, the unionist vote was more focused and strategic. Second was the energetic leadership of Ruth Davidson within the ranks of the Scottish Conservatives.
Alongside this, many Scots had been put off by Sturgeon’s quick call for a second independence referendum in response to the Brexit vote. More cautious voters were dismayed by both Sturgeon’s and new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s more direct and disruptive policies. Another issue was the fact that one-third of SNP voters had actually backed Brexit, and likely wished to support the party aiding its completion, rather than the parties that were seen to be putting up roadblocks or dividing parliamentary focus.
In Westminster, the election result had left May looking weakened and shaky, but no resignation came. The UK was in the midst of political turmoil, and after unsuccessful attempts to get a Brexit bill through, challenges to her leadership, a poor performance in the 2019 local elections and some questionable dance moves, Theresa May tearfully resigned as prime minister.
After winning the race to become leader of the Conservatives, a new, floppy haired prime minster was instated: Boris Johnson. He came in with a mission to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October 2019.
Johnson is perfectly, almost deliberately, designed to alienate Scottish voters. Ben Jackson
Arguably, not since Thatcher had there been a prime minister less relatable for Scots. Sturgeon and Johnson could be described as the antithesis of one another, further defining a split between the two countries.
As Boris moved into Number Ten, Sturgeon was ever the diplomat, highlighting that although they had many differences, she would be willing to work with him. She did, however, outline her “profound concerns over the prospect of Boris Johnson as prime minister”. Sturgeon went on to highlight that Scottish people had little say in his appointment.
Lloyd remarks on Johnson’s political journey. “He spent much of his life being a journalist of the right and also having a sort of scandalous career,” he says. “He is a man of some talent but no fixed abode. Most people who come to prime minister have done an apprenticeship, at least through the Commons. Johnson came in as a man politically unprepared. Of course, he had been foreign secretary for a while, but he really mucked it up and didn’t seem to care very much.”
Alongside a colourful career history, Johnson had done little in his life to endear him to Scots. In fact, he had dropped numerous breadcrumbs as a journalist that pointed to a dislike of the Scottish. He had called Gordon Brown’s Scottishness “a personal political disability”, and referred to Scottish devolution a “disaster” and “Blair’s biggest mistake”.
Jackson says: “Johnson is perfectly, almost deliberately, designed to alienate Scottish voters.” Perhaps most damning was his choice to publish a satirical poem in his time as editor of the Spectator entitled The Scotch – a Verminous Race. Among many insults, it called to “suppress the tartan dwarves and the wee frees”. When, in 2019, Johnson arrived in Scotland for a ministerial visit with Sturgeon, he was met with a wave of disapproving boos.
In the 2019 general election, the SNP won back 13 seats and the Conservatives (although still the second-largest party in Scotland) dropped down to six MPs.
This renewed support for the SNP further backed Sturgeon’s mandate for another referendum. Once again, a request was put to Westminster for a referendum. Johnson refused, arguing that the 2014 referendum was supposed to be ‘once in a generation’.
Between his appointment in 2019 and the onset of the pandemic, Johnson’s main focus was Brexit. Sturgeon, however, focused upon highlighting the political divide between England and Scotland, the perils of the oncoming Brexit deal and rallying support for a second referendum.
Scotland, Covid and the Brexit deal
The eventual Brexit deal that brought about the UK’s formal exit from the EU has done little to repair broken bridges between the two nations. Johnson, although he flirted with a no-deal exit, eventually delivered a deal and made good on his promise to move the UK out of the EU.
Sturgeon continued to call for a referendum on Scottish independence and called Johnson’s refusal undemocratic. The accusation was strengthened by polls taking the Scottish temperature on independence. The Institute for Government reported that there had been an upward trend in favour of independence since 2017.
The year 2020 saw this support strengthen, with between 51% and 58% of voters agreeing that Scotland should become an independent country. This was according to polls taken by YouGov, Panelbase and Ipsos Mori. One key influencer for both economics and politics in 2020 was the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The additional strain of leading a country through a pandemic has brought on a sharp comparison in leadership styles.
Lloyd says: “Johnson, when he talks about Covid, tends to bumble and make stupid jokes. He has sharpened his act up somewhat, but he has this upper-class accent and he is a bit of liability – I have heard Tories say this. Whereas Sturgeon stands up and she is forthright and well prepared. She tells people how it is and dominates the media.”
There has always been an English identity and a Scottish identity, but the change over the past 20 years or so is the sharpening of each identity. The othering of Scots to English and vice versa. Tom Devine
Devine adds: “The two nations are no longer running along parallel lines in any sense. They are rapidly diverging. When you listen to Sturgeon and her colleagues during the Covid addresses, in comparison and by general account of journalists in the south, they are much more systematic and coherent. They are more on the ball than some of Johnson’s ramblings. [Scots] honestly believe they are living in an independent Scotland.”
Devine highlights that this is representative of the death of the union’s respect-based partnership. “I don’t detect statesmanship on either side of the border,” he says. “[The main difference between the 2014 referendum and now] is that it was friendly. At the end of signing the Edinburgh agreement, Cameron had said to Salmond: ‘Let’s go next door for a drink and have a chat without advisors.’ Half-an-hour later, they were still there. I cannot imagine that happening with the current heads of government. Sturgeon is a nippy sweetie and Johnson is a clown.”
The rise in nationalism over the past five years has only added to this breaking down of relations. Devine says: “There has always been an English identity and a Scottish identity, but the change over the past 20 years or so is the sharpening of each identity. The othering of Scots to English and vice versa, the belief they are alien, they are different. I didn’t detect that to the same extent before, except for perhaps in football. There wasn’t [nationalism like this] in 2014.”
Lloyd cautions that if a second referendum were to happen and Scotland did become independent, these rising tensions would not go into reverse.
“The negotiations between what would be the rest of the UK and Scotland would be very bitter and so much more haggard than Brexit,” he says. “You have got 300-plus years of intertwining between these states to unpick.”
In 2021, with the UK out of the EU and the glacial recovery out of Covid-19 under way, general political stances may have not changed but the polls have.
Sturgeon, Salmond and the SNP’s civil war
As the May Scottish elections beckon, Sturgeon and the SNP remain favourite to win in the polls. Since her appointment as first minister, her popularity for the most part hasn’t faltered. Yet, in recent months her unrelenting success as SNP leader has been challenged and marred by an unlikely opponent: Alex Salmond.
Following his being accused and acquitted of serious sexual misconduct, Salmond pointed the finger at Sturgeon, accusing her of conspiring to bring him down. This accusation triggered a bitter civil war at the top of the SNP.
Salmond, his friends and allies reacted vehemently to not just the accusations, but to the alleged involvement of Sturgeon in these allegations. Enquiries were made to ascertain what Sturgeon’s role was with regards to the initial allegations made against Salmond. This led to an enquiry to determine whether or not Sturgeon had knowingly misled Holyrood.
Had she been found guilty, there would undoubtedly have been calls for her to resign, although many in the party questioned which was the greater of two evils: a conspiracy to bring a sexual abuser to light by misleading a parliament or a senior woman trying to protect other women against a predator?
Sturgeon was later found not guilty of knowingly misleading parliament. This episode did, however, make Sturgeon vulnerable to attacks on her leadership. The Conservative Party leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, called for Sturgeon to resign, calling it the “honourable thing to do” and motioned a no-confidence vote.
It is interesting that opinion polling seems to show that Alex Salmond is less popular in Scotland than Boris Johnson at the moment. Ben Jackson
Sturgeon stood tall, saying: “If you think you can bully me out of office, you are mistaken and you misjudge me. If you want to remove me as first minister – do it in an election.” The no-confidence vote failed, and Sturgeon survived, but not without battle scars.
Devine says: “I suspect a lot of Scottish voters will think there is a smell about this shambles. You would almost believe MI5 were behind it because of the way it has been triggered just before the May elections.”
Jackson is confident that the episode will have little impact on the future of the SNP. “I am inclined to think [the enquiry] will not make much difference,” he says. “The SNP is a solid vote, a vote that is committed to independence. These debates and splits are secondary to that larger project of independence. It is also interesting then that opinion polling seems to show that Salmond is less popular in Scotland than Boris Johnson at the moment.”
Not one to fade into the background or perhaps ‘go quietly’, Salmond shocked many in Scotland in March 2021 when he announced he was launching his own independence party named Alba. Naming himself as leader, a few SNP MPs followed his exit from the party in the days following the announcement.
Sturgeon responded indirectly at the SNP’s campaign launch for the 2021 May elections. In a pre-recorded address, Sturgeon said: “I don’t have much time these days for the ‘who’s up/who’s down’ approach to politics. And I definitely have much less patience for those who treat politics like a game, and for indulging anyone who puts self-interest ahead of the country’s best interests.”
At the time of writing, it remains to be seen whether or not Salmond’s party will confuse voters and dampen the cry for a second referendum or create a so-called ‘super-majority’ for an independent Scotland. Polling experts agree that Sturgeon’s reputation remains intact despite the bumpy start to 2021.
What now for Scotland’s independence movement?
The upcoming May election will provide a definitive answer on where Scots’ appetites lie with regards to independence. If Sturgeon and the SNP keep their majority in Scotland following the May elections, the cries for another independence referendum will be deafening.
Despite the polls suggesting that the SNP will be reinstated as Scotland’s main political party, there has been a recent drop in support for independence. The margins are slight, but six weeks before the May elections, the polls were sitting at 50–50.
Everything – industry, economy, finance, ties of affection, friendship, employment, pensions – all of these things would have to be unstuck [in the event of Scotland gaining independence]. Every one of them is a large and contentious negotiation. John Lloyd
This begs the question of how far Johnson can resist a clear, democratic, Scottish demand for a referendum.
Devine outlines that to continue to do so would be a mistake. “The stupidities of London,” he says. “Not only are they refusing, in an anti-democratic way, a referendum. They don’t seem to have the slightest idea how to draw the teeth of this current birth of nationalism.”
Lloyd suspects that selfish reasons are playing into this for Johnson. “Any prime minister – whether Labour or Tory – who was in power when Scotland was ‘lost’ would probably then lose office,” he says. “He or she would be held responsible for losing the UK as it is, and it would be a huge loss.”
In March 2021, Johnson made a statement: “The SNP can see that after the impact of the coronavirus, that people would want time to renew their lives and to rebuild relationships that have become stretched… How can the SNP say that a referendum is the priority to them? It is the last thing [Scottish people] need right now. It is clear the SNP are just not listening. They are intent on pushing for a referendum regardless of the cost to Scotland and the whole of the UK. That means it falls to the Scottish Conservatives to make them listen.”
Devine prophesises what his advice to Johnson would be. “[The Conservatives] should be trying to put the SNP in a box by saying to the British people: ‘We will offer them a referendum, the most democratic referendum of all, not just two extreme choices, but a middle way as well’,” he says. “[That they are not doing that] shows you how dense they are.”
Jackson agrees that carefully wording a new referendum to include a ‘third option’ would dilute voter aggression. “Having three options is definitely better for [unionists] than having two,” he says. “In retrospect, that was a big mistake in 2014.”
Lloyd questions how further devolution could work. “There is not much space for radical devolution,” he says. “It would mean the SNP, or indeed any government that came into the Scottish parliament, would have to raise all the taxes itself.”
Lloyd goes on to highlight an economic argument against an independent Scotland, saying: “My caution to the SNP, and indeed any Scottish government, is ‘be careful what you ask for’. The tax that is gathered from Scotland itself is quite substantially below what is required to maintain the Scottish living standard.”
Lloyd explains that the Barnett formula is crucial to Scotland’s economic health. “Scotland has got a budget deficit every year,” he says.
Furthermore, if a large driver behind renewed cries for independence is Brexit, independence being granted would make rejoining the EU very economically difficult. It would require harsh budget cuts, large tax rises or both in order to get the Scottish deficit down to an EU qualifying percentage.
Devine argues that the longer the discord between England and Scotland continues, the less important considering these economic woes becomes. “The Scottish reaction may become so emotional, that even as all the economic arguments are stacked against it, a narrow majority of the Scots may still vote ‘yes’, because they are completely pissed off.”
Lloyd goes on to outline some of the complexities of dividing the union. “Although Scotland has a partially independent legal system, it is still be very much shaped by and for the English system,” he says. “Everything – industry, economy, finance, ties of affection, friendship, employment, pensions – all of these things would have to be unstuck. Every one of them is a large and contentious negotiation.”
Lloyd continues to examine where this would leave the ‘United’ Kingdom that would be left behind. “We would no longer be able to be called the United Kingdom, because the union is Scotland and England. It wouldn’t be called Great Britain, because Great Britain derived from the 1707 Union of the Parliaments. It would mean that Britain was decapitated.”
Jackson adds that it would call into question the remaining kingdom’s global stance. “There is this social-cultural aspect to it,” he says. “Suddenly, a big and important part of the UK would no longer be there anymore. The worry is that it would undermine the status of the UK in world affairs.”
Devine believes that if the SNP does well in the May election, the outcome of a referendum would hinge on the ballot wording. “An absolutely fundamental factor is going to be the question or questions asked on the ballot paper,” he says. “I think an effective and likely way to kill independence would be to offer three questions. Johnson, if he has any guile, should say to the SNP: ‘This is take it or leave it time’.”
When given the option between no referendum or a three-question referendum, the SNP will find it hard to refuse. Devine continues: “Given its constant talk of democratic rights, how could the SNP refuse to take part in that?”
Regardless of how the May election plays out and whether a second referendum comes to be, there will be many wounds for the UK to heal. Divisions among communities, parties and countries have deepened in the past 20 years, so this turmoil is set to continue beyond Brexit and Covid-19. The question lingering on both sides of the border is not just whether the kingdom will remain united, but how can it be reunited and strengthened?
For further coverage of Scotland, read our features on Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.