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'Each Year the Electorate Becomes a Little Less British and a Little More Scottish'

August 31, 2020 | Expert Insights


Boris Johnson has done little to arrest the declining popularity of his party in Scotland, especially to retain the loyalty of the Scots who voted against Independence.

Commentators believe that [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson and his government epitomise everything that Scots dislike about the Tory party. His manifest sense of privilege, the fact that they are a bunch of Brexiteers (a policy rejected by Scotland and which it feels has been forced upon it) and his history of marginally racist rhetoric about Scots, just add to their view. 

Only 21 percent of voters in Scotland think Johnson has done a good job handling COVID-19, whereas 74 percent think [Nicola] Sturgeon has done well. The statistics reinforce the perception that the UK government has handled the pandemic badly, whereas Sturgeon has given a positive impression of her leadership. All this fuels the thinking in Scotland that it would fare better on its own.

The nationalist message is strongly one of identity. The question of identity is powerful and becomes increasingly difficult to campaign against, particularly the idea that each year the Scottish electorate becomes a little less British and a little more Scottish.  The Tories have lost Ruth Davidson as their Scottish leader and main campaigner, which has left a void to be filled. Her successor, Jackson Carlaw, lasted for months only and fled rather than face the coming battle, and Douglas Ross, the latest Scottish Tory leader, a Westminster MP, is not even in the Scottish parliament.

In responding to this sentiment in Scotland, it is not necessarily that Johnson has acted too late, but that his message for sustaining the Union has not been strong enough to counteract the aggregate effect of all the above. For example, Boris has said it would be "such a shame" to lose the "magic" of the United Kingdom. In contrast, the Nationalists, led by Sturgeon, have a much stronger message. Last week she said, "I... believe(s) in Scottish independence with every fibre of my being." 

Looking at a future for Scotland within the UK, it does not appear to be a fair contest between the nationalists and the unionists.


We are living in unprecedented circumstances. The polls reflect sentiment. Nothing is inevitable because sentiment can change. 

For the independence argument to succeed, there is a fundamental economic battle to be won. It requires a majority of the Scottish electorate, which is both politically and economically literate, to be persuaded that they are not better off in the UK, as opposed to a separate Scotland.

Economic news that we are in recession is bad and applies to the whole of the UK. In these circumstances, as it will take years for us to recover, it may become more difficult for those in favour of Independence to persuade a majority that Scotland will be better off on its own.


The government is clear that it will hold the Nationalists to their commitment not to seek another independence referendum for a generation. 

In the immediate short term, Johnson will not shift away from his position of no referendum and is in little mood to concede on anything that appears to him to weaken the Union. Reportedly, he blocked a radical proposal by Michael Gove, Cabinet Office Minister, to shore up the Union by inviting Sturgeon to take a seat at the UK government’s Cabinet table.

Mr Gove proposed the plan as a way of containing growing public support in Scotland for Independence by giving Sturgeon a direct say in policy decisions. Instead, Johnson has led a series of visits by UK Government Ministers to Scotland to trumpet how the heft of the UK exchequer had helped Scots weather the coronavirus pandemic.

In the medium term, the Unionist parties face a possible rout in next year's Holyrood elections. In the long-term, it will be very difficult, politically, for the Conservatives to ignore the question of Scottish Independence.

Polling shows that more than two-thirds of SNP voters want Sturgeon to push for an unauthorised independence referendum if the UK government withholds permission from a majority nationalist Scottish government.  As much as the Prime Minister will want to maintain this position, he may not be able to do so over the long term.

Eventually, the political and moral pressure to concede to another referendum may prove irresistible, and then it will be up to the Scottish people.