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Mar 26, 2023
Scotland’s New Leader Faces Same Old Rancor Over Independence
(Bloomberg) -- Taking the stage like a rock star to cheering fans, Nicola Sturgeon did what she’d done for almost a decade as leader of Scotland’s independence campaign. She rallied her troops for the next fight.
It was Nov. 23 and the Supreme Court in London had just torpedoed her plan to hold a referendum on breaking away from the rest of the UK. The push for full autonomy in the wake of Britain’s departure from the European Union was now a “movement for democracy,” she told flag-waving supporters outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. “Let’s get to it, my friends.”
Less than three months later, Sturgeon announced her resignation. The official line was that it was time to pass on the baton as head of Scotland’s administration and the Scottish National Party. Yet looming large was a campaign that had failed to convince a divided nation and make the UK’s refusal to permit a vote politically, if not legally, untenable.
From pubs to parliament, the wrangling over its constitutional future has come to define Scotland in a way that Brexit has cleaved UK politics in recent years. The difference is that while Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is slowly mending ties with the EU, short of a high-stakes referendum there’s no deal to be done that will heal the rift over Scottish independence anytime soon.
Scotland is still broadly split down the middle on the issue when taking into account undecided voters and margins of error, though support for a breakaway has dipped. Sturgeon, meanwhile — to paraphrase her own description in her Feb. 15 resignation speech — is either loved or loathed.
Her now openly fractious SNP picked Health Secretary Humza Yousaf as new leader on Monday after a controversial race that saw Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, resign as the party’s chief executive over misleading statements regarding a drop of about 30,000 in the SNP membership. Yousaf is expected to be officially appointed as first minister in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday.
Conversations with voters, business owners and pollsters show the country is keen to move on. The question is how. People are often reticent to disclose what side they’re on. Blue “Yes” posters and bumper stickers are no longer everywhere, but they’re not unusual. Tricolor Union Jack flags or blue-and-white Scottish Saltires remain political statements.
“People just want some stability, some normality,” said Mark Blair, co-founder of Effectivenow, a consultancy firm in Edinburgh for small businesses. “No one wants to hear the same thing over and over again.”
David Equi, owner of family run Equi’s Ice Cream based on the outskirts of Glasgow, said business can be affected if he’s seen as on one side or the other, so he declined to say. “It’s the uncertainty that kills you,” said Equi, who employs about 50 people in total. “It doesn’t matter to me whether we go independent or not, I just want a decision on it. Business people don’t want to invest any money. The country is just split on it.”
The surprise exit of Sturgeon, 52, one of the most prominent politicians in Britain, might have come with a sigh of relief in London, among both Sunak’s ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party as the potential UK government-in-waiting.
Sturgeon took her party to a new level as an electoral force. The latest polls show support for the SNP has waned since Sturgeon dropped her bombshell, along with appetite for independence.
There’s little to suggest the party is about to lose its dominance over Scotland, though, regardless of the messy leadership race. That’s also despite its patchy record on health and education, a scandal over island ferry contracts and a police probe into party finances. The economy is also lagging the UK as a whole.
A month before Sturgeon resigned, the UK blocked a controversial gender recognition bill passed by the Scottish Parliament after a feud over the protection of women’s rights.
Read More: UK Tories Levelling Up Promise Shows Scant Reward in Scotland
Yet the existential goal of creating a new European nation-state still stirs the political juices, especially among a younger cohort for whom Sturgeon energized politics during and since an independence referendum in September 2014.
Scotland voted 55% to 45% to remain in the three-centuries-old union with England and Wales in what the UK government calls a once-in-a-generation event. Less than two years later, the UK overall voted for Brexit, but Scotland didn’t. Part of the narrative now is that the UK government wants to take away powers that Scotland already has.
“People can’t just wish the independence question away,” said Stephen Gethins, an SNP former member of the UK Parliament and now a professor of international relations at St Andrews University. “To reach an end to the impasse, you can’t just consistently say no to independence and stick your fingers in your ears.”
Independence, naturally, was central to the three-way race to succeed Sturgeon between Yousaf, Finance Secretary Kate Forbes and former minister Ash Regan. But polling firm Redfield & Wilton Strategies found this month that even among SNP voters, independence ranked as just the third most important issue they would vote on in the next election, behind the economy and state of the National Health Service.
For opponents, the debate has masked Scotland’s mixed metrics, something the Conservatives and Labour are trying to hit home with the electorate. They say the country of 5.5 million people is one of the biggest regional beneficiaries of the UK budget and the SNP government should sort out waiting times for health care and reverse declines in educational outcomes.
While university education and medical prescriptions remain free for locals, higher earners also pay more tax than the rest of the UK, to the tune of about £1,500 ($1,785) on a £50,000 salary in the next financial year.
Economically, gross domestic product per capita has underperformed and most parts of Scotland still have below-average incomes. Life expectancy for men in Scotland is the lowest of any group in the UK’s four constituent nations, according to the Office for National Statistics. Like the rest of the UK, it also faces a post-Brexit labor shortage that’s hit everything from hospitality to childcare.
For Christian Arno, chief executive officer of PawPrint, a tech company in Edinburgh that helps clients improve their ESG credentials, it’s addressing those sorts of challenges that both sides of the independence argument should be channeling their attention. “It makes me feel like more of that energy should go into the stuff that really makes a difference,” he said.
Why Scotland’s Push to Secede From UK Won’t Go Away
Polling suggests party allegiances may switch, though how much that might damage the SNP is unclear. If an election were held now — the next UK wide poll is by the start of 2025 — the nationalists would still win, perhaps losing ground to Labour and making up some from the Conservatives, according to Mark Diffley, a former Ipsos pollster in Edinburgh who set up his own firm in 2017. The main driver of voting intention ultimately will still likely be whether you’re for or against independence, he said.
The political limbo partly reflects how British politics has unfolded since 2007 when the SNP first took the reins of Scotland’s so-called devolved administration, which is responsible for areas such as health, education, transportation, justice and some economic and tax policy.
Scotland is run by a party that’s become the establishment north of the border and yet a key opposition group in the UK Parliament. To the nationalists, every shortcoming could be fixed by independence, the ability to borrow from international debt markets and rejoin the EU. To opponents, every shortcoming is because of that fixation with independence.Under former leader Alex Salmond, the SNP won a landslide in 2011 to set up the independence vote granted by former Prime Minister David Cameron. Following the referendum loss, Sturgeon took over and the SNP saw its membership proliferate. It took 50% of the vote in the 2015 general election and 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster districts in what turned out to be the high-water mark.
After the UK voted for Brexit the following year, Sturgeon demanded another referendum on independence, bolstering her argument with more election victories and her popularity during the pandemic compared with Boris Johnson, by then the British prime minister.
“Uncertainty has just become part of what you are dealing with as a small business, it’s the norm,” said Lisa Lawson, founder of Dear Green Coffee Roasters, based in Glasgow. She said she’s had to rethink where she imports beans from since Brexit. “We had an independence referendum and it was divided in Scotland. We have Brexit, and it was absolutely overwhelmingly Scotland voting against it, and that’s being disregarded.”
Much like the UK leaving the EU, there’s little doubt Scotland could go it alone, albeit with some pain. The root of the division is over whether it should. Brexit provided a short-term boost to its aspirations for independence, as did the handling of Covid. That split, Brexit-style, is just now more entrenched
The SNP is trying to counter that with fresh leadership. All three candidates backtracked on Sturgeon’s proposal to turn the next UK election into a de facto referendum on independence. Yet, during a televised debate, all three predicted Scotland would be its own nation-state in five years.
The key question is where the “Yes” campaign goes next under Yousaf. Sturgeon rallied her troops for a battle that the enemy refuses to fight. “There is measurable uncertainty about what’s going to happen,” said Diffley, the pollster. As for the shadow of independence fading with Sturgeon’s departure: “I would say that’s wishful thinking for a lot of people.”
--With assistance from Alastair Reed.
(Updates with new leader in seventh paragraph)
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