Closer to the Edge? Is Scotland Preparing to Leave the UK?

He was finding it an uncomfortable experience, booed and jeered on the steps of Bute House, the home of Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. It was July 29, and it was Boris Johnson’s first visit to Edinburgh since becoming Prime Minister of the UK six days before.

There were also awkward games being played between the two leaders.

Johnson attempting to display power by ushering Sturgeon into her own residence, Sturgeon resisting. She said something to him, his arm dropped and he sheepishly made his way over the threshold. A symbolic moment? Perhaps. Maybe it was nothing more than the pretence of, apparently, polite politicians with diametrically opposed agendas acting out their own power plays using body language. Or, was it something more significant?

Maybe it was a symbolic confidence that the First Minister displayed, a feeling within and without her government that Scotland is moving firmly toward a renewed demand for a second independence referendum – the so-called Indyref2 (to distinguish it from the first independence referendum the nationalists lost on September 18, 2014).

There is little doubt Boris Johnson’s election as Prime Minister has worked for Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish independence movement.

In a country that voted 62 per cent to 38 per cent to remain in the EU, Johnson’s position as one the major leaders of the 2016 leave campaign has made him extremely unpopular north of the border. Marry this to his own bullish advocacy of a ‘no deal’ exit of the EU and you get some idea of why a growing number of Scots don’t want to be ruled by Johnson or his government.

Earlier this year Sturgeon, picking up on the growing discontent coalescing around the Brexit fiasco, published a bill on a second referendum on May 29. Johnson’s Conservative leadership win and subsequent appointment as UK Prime Minister seems to have strengthened her position.

A recent poll of people living in Scotland has also given Sturgeon and her ruling SNP (Scottish National Party) a boost.

The survey conducted by Lord Ashcroft and published on August 5, suggests that, for the first time since March 2017, there was a majority of Scots in favour of leaving the UK.

Of those polled, 46 per cent said they would say yes in an independence referendum while 43 per cent said they would vote to remain in the United Kingdom. While The National, a pro-independence newspaper declared that those wanting independence was ‘soaring ahead’, the statistics from Ashcroft’s poll were, in the end, inconclusive, with 11 per cent undecided.

Removing those who are undecided from the poll would, of course, give us 52 per cent to 48 per cent in favour of breakaway – as some UK newspapers pointed out. Arguably, however, 11 per cent is a sizeable sample holding sway in what could be a very tight contest, and far too large a grouping to simply ignore.

“The most recent opinion poll is clearly a reaction to the sudden upheaval at Westminster. There have been nearly 100 polls since the first independence referendum and 87 per cent of those have found majority support for remaining in the UK.” Pamela Nash, CEO of Scotland In Union, a pro UK remain group told Inside Over. “The challenges that Scotland would face if we broke away from the rest of the UK remain unchanged. That includes tax rises and public service cuts which would hit the poorest in society, and scrapping the British pound.”

And, she continued:

“Predictably, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are using Boris Johnson’s victory to launch yet another attempt to divide us… the very last thing Scotland needs is another divisive independence referendum and more constitutional chaos.”

To hold another independence referendum would also require the consent of a London government, but not everyone wants to wait for that.

Former Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill writing in The Scotsman intimated that he might be inclined to go for a Catalan style referendum, but many among the independence movement view this as foolhardy and irresponsible.

The sight of Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Kenny MacAskill et al being bundled into a car whisked to Glasgow airport and exile in Belgium with Carles Piugdemont is surely the stuff of Hollywood, not Holyrood (The Scottish Parliament).

Conversely, independence movements are happy to play the long game.

“We would Like to see more polls leaning towards yes before making any further moves towards an independence referendum,” Scott McMurray of Saltires for Independence told me. “We do think we would win as it stands, but we want to be sure of it. I think as long as Boris Johnson continues to focus on a no-deal Brexit there will continue to be a steady increase in support for independence.”

Johnson is set to take the UK out of the European Union on October 31 if there is no deal over Brexit. Former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has warned that the inflexibility of Johnson and the UK government on this issue might be a tipping point and their actions break up the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon may feel that the political stars are beginning to align for her. But she also knows that she has to make a strong case for another independence referendum based on the perceived will of the Scottish people to self-determine their future. She needs a clear sign from the Scots that they clearly WANT independence.

It would prove difficult in those circumstances for any government in London, even one led by Boris Johnson, to deny any request for Indyref2.