On January 2, 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that the following 12 months would amount to a “fantastic year for Britain.” Instead, a global pandemic and the political turmoil of Brexit have stretched the social fabric of the United Kingdom to ripping point.
The politics and constitutional arrangements between the four nations that make up the United Kingdom are a constant source of pain to any leader trying to reconcile their substantively different political and societal priorities.
But the two biggest peacetime crises faced by Britain – one anticipated, and one that came out of thin air – have combined to create a perfect storm of dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Finally, after years of drawn-out political debate and tortuous negotiations, Britain left the EU’s regulatory and trading universe on January 1, but with a myriad of unpredictable strains on the UK’s political union that could lead the British Prime Minister into choppy constitutional waters. Simultaneously, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare how much political distance there is between the devolved governments – in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – and London.
The independence movement in Scotland has grown since the country’s referendum in 2014, where Scots voted by 55% to remain in the Union. According to a recent poll in the Scotsman newspaper, independence is currently 16 points ahead.
Much of that support is attributed to Scotland’s objection to Brexit. Even as Johnson celebrated securing a trade deal with the EU, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that “there is no deal that will ever make up for what Brexit takes away from us. It’s time to chart our own future as an independent, European nation.”
In Northern Ireland, nationalist politicians that spoke to CNN admitted they have never been so confident that, should a vote be called, the north could be reunited with the Republic of Ireland.
While there is not a strong independence movement in Wales, the support for business-as-usual has become untenable, as nationalists become increasingly hostile towards the Conservative government in Westminster.
And in England, the largest, richest and most conservative of the four, resentment of a status quo that can easily be characterized as London sending money to fund its poorer relatives in the other three nations is growing.
All of which presents a problem for Boris Johnson, who is not only leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, but also the self-appointed Minister for the Union. Indeed, ever since he took office, Johnson has painted himself as a defender of the Union and talked at length about strengthening ties between the four nations.
But Unionists within his own party are skeptical as to how much the PM really cares about three countries where a majority of the electorate don’t vote Conservative, and where his personal popularity ratings are poor.
Worse for Johnson, 2021 is a battlefield of trip wires and landmines that he’s about to wade onto with – his Unionist allies fear – the parlous tread of a hyperactive elephant.
The most dangerous of these landmines is May’s Scottish parliamentary election.
The Scottish National Party has dominated the nation’s politics since the independence vote in 2014. Though they lost the poll, by 45% to 55%, the SNP went on to win 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in 2015.
Barely a year later, they were handed another propaganda victory, when 62% of Scottish voters backed remaining in the EU against the 52% across the UK that voted to leave. Ever since, the message that Scotland is being dragged out of Europe against its will has been powerful.
“The support for independence has definitely been boosted by Brexit,” says Nicola McEwan, professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh. “You can expect that sentiment to grow if the Conservatives’ Brexit policy leads to food shortages, an economic crash and a dwindling of the UK’s status in the world.”
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has also been praised by many Scots for her handling of the pandemic, even though her policies and their efficacy have seldom differed dramatically from Johnson’s.