A pandemic that has brought despair and anguish amongst many UK citizens might now be the cause of yet another dispute regarding the stability of the UK itself. Throughout the tiring months of the pandemic, support for independence movements across the country have rapidly increased, with many preferring the devolved response to coronavirus than Westminster’s.
When looking at Scotland in particular, new YouGov polls have suggested that support for Scotland leaving the UK and causing a break in the union is at 51 percent, with a separate study conducted by Panelbase finding the percentage slightly higher at 56 percent. In addition to this, further research conducted by YouGov ahead of the May Holyrood elections found the SNP at the top of voting intentions for next year’s election standing at 56 percent for the constituency vote, and 47 percent for the regional vote. The statistics ultimately stand as a strong reminder that the independence referendum of 2014 is not something that has been forgotten about during the troubles of the pandemic, and if the SNP are able to hold their majority in May, it is something that definitely remains as a key priority going forward. Respondents also deemed Scotland’s leading lady Nicola Sturgeon favourable in leadership qualities, despite a small drop from 72 percent to 67 percent. These statistics convey a strong sense of the current voting intentions within Scotland and it is clear that the handling of the pandemic is largely accountable for this.
There has been a mainly positive response towards measures imposed to combat cases in comparison to that of England’s rather too little too late approach. Throughout the last few months, one of the biggest decisions made by governments across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was a “circuit-breaker” style lockdown that took place at the end of October. This was largely welcomed as many nations were reporting numbers of cases that were in line with those that were recorded at the beginning of this year. Nicola Sturgeon took the decision to extend this by a week in order to create a “smooth transition” into the newly created tiered approach that Scotland would then be due to enter. Although these last-minute extensions and changes were damaging to smaller businesses and added uncertainty, Sturgeon was, and still has been, largely praised by her openness within these pandemic briefings that have added a more personal feel.
Within many of her briefings Sturgeon has openly stated that many measures implemented are under constant re-evaluation, which although many have found challenging, this general honesty has been greatly appreciated by Scots. Wilson, a 52 year old IT worker from Edinburgh spoke to the Independent, describing how Sturgeon sometimes slips “into Scottish vernacular” which in turn becomes reassuring to those watching, as they feel themselves being able to identify with her more. In comparison to the rather collective approach taken by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Westminster chose not to follow this same path which has undoubtedly led many to believe a separation of the Union is looking every more likely. This example on top of the earlier measures of the year, can be seen to paint a picture of a United Kingdom that is looking divided.
As we move into the run-up to Christmas, Scotland’s latest five-tiered system for tackling the virus has been introduced and although takes a similar structure to that imposed in England, the categories can be seen as much more thorough and comprehensive in a way that clearly tackles individual areas of Scotland itself. These tiers, however, are by no means definitive, and struggles in COBRA meetings regarding the furlough scheme and its ability to be extended outwards into devolved administrations is something that has increasingly worried those who need it the most. The implied disjuncture of UK has angered many and poses a complicated discussion regarding what might may’s Holyrood elections actually involve. This contradiction is furthered by cases and death rates being largely similar to that of Westminster, however, many believe it is simply the style of communication that sets Scotland apart from England and has largely led to the discussion of independence being back on the cards.
Furthermore, if Scotland were to hold yet another independence vote, this would and could look slightly different to its previous. Ultimately, the 2014 election rules must not be reused. The last elections rules stated that Scottish-born UK citizens living abroad were unable to vote, and many have argued that to ensure a fair vote only those who are able to get Scottish citizenship after the vote should be able to (inclusive of expats). Although these talks are still in their early days, it has increasingly excited those from campaign groups such as Wilson from “All Under One Banner”, who argues that this new talk of independence has found support from Conservative and Labour members, which is a huge change to beliefs within parties.
However, although some Scots opinions might have been altered or challenged over the last few months, the idea of Scottish independence is still one that remains highly criticised within parties. Former Labour leader Gordon Brown has criticised Sturgeon’s comments arguing “there’s got to be a time to heal”, and this is simply a discussion for when the most pressing issues of the pandemic itself have been tackled.
Scotland’s quest for independence has sparked greater support for an independent Wales. These feelings have only been exacerbated further by Westminster’s post-Brexit plans, and the way that the UK Government have handled the coronavirus pandemic which has left Wales to effectively govern its own response. This has been seen as a success, with First Minister Mark Drakeford’s approach to handling the pandemic receiving praise from other European leaders such as Angela Merkel. With independence movements within Wales gaining more traction, the question is whether there is enough support to justify holding a referendum.
The dragon that is the idea of an independent Wales has rarely reared its head, but public opinion is changing and the dragon is beginning to stir. The controversial Internal Markets Bill passed by parliament in September 2020 threatened to unsettle the policy of devolution implemented in 1997 by then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The bill calls for the set-up of a trading agreement within the union after Brexit which crucially centralises power back to Westminster and restricts powers that have been previously devolved to country’s administrations. The Welsh Government’s Brexit Minister Jeremy Miles warned that this could signal the break-up of the union if not reversed or modified so that the central government gave power back to the Senedd (Welsh parliament).
The Senedd was founded in 1999 following the implementation of devolution. Similar to the central UK Government, elections are held every five years to elect 60 members of Senedd (MS) which is currently run in a coalition of 29 Labour members, one Liberal Democrat and a sole independent. The Senedd has gained further power over the last decade, allowing them to make laws in twenty devolved areas without having to consult the UK Parliament or Secretary of State for Wales. These devolved areas include education, the environment and health and social care. In essence, the political system is already in place for Wales to be an autonomous nation, especially with a distinct voting system to the UK general election. In a similar vain to the acclaimed West German voting system of the 1960s, the Welsh public cast two votes: one for their constituency in a first-past-the-post vote, and one for an electoral ‘region’ which is decided through proportional representation.
Since the failings of the Conservative government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic have come under the critical microscope of the public sphere, praise has been heaped upon Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford and his response to the virus. The first lockdown in March kept the Union with the same policy, but as England re-emerged on 4th July, Drakeford kept Wales locked down until 3rd August which ensured the country had the lowest R-rate heading into the summer. As the second wave hit in September and October, the First Minister made the bold move to implement a two-week ‘firebreak lockdown’ to supress the virus before the winter months. This went against the governance of England who took a further fortnight to implement the same policy. Drakeford’s response has received widespread praise from other major leaders who have adopted similar circuit breaker policies, and has shown evidence to the Welsh public that there is the capability to rule separately from Westminster.
But do the Welsh people want independence? On the surface it would appear not as levels of nationalism within Wales have traditionally sat at around 15 percent which, compared to Scotland’s 40 percent, puts it lower than the Union average. Similarly, polling for Welsh independence has been between 15 percent and 20 percent throughout the 2010s meaning that there would not be enough justification to hold an independence referendum. Plaid Cymru, the leading Welsh national party, are the largest party who have campaigned for an exploratory independence referendum yet they only hold 12 out of 60 seats in the Senedd meaning they would need to make large gains in the upcoming 2021 election to be in a position to push for change.
Yet whispers within the public suggest that support for independence is gaining traction. YesCymru is a public-led campaign for Welsh independence which uses its high social media profile to spread their message and gain support. Their membership at the start of 2020 was 2,500 but with the ongoing pandemic bringing different leadership tactics from Boris Johnson and Mark Drakeford has drastically changed the opinion of the Welsh people. A poll of 1,000 Welsh voters in November showed that 33 percent were supportive of independence, a record high, and YesCymru membership is now approaching 16,000. Whilst the support is still growing, it is not enough still for a referendum let alone victory for independence. Much of the Welsh public are apprehensive about independence because of the uncertainty around re-joining the European Union, despite the country voting to leave. The quest for Scottish independence seems like a Guinea-pig for the Welsh, as the question if an independent former member of the United Kingdom can re-join the EU remains unanswered. If Scotland can become independent and join the EU then a surge of support for Welsh independence may follow.
It seems then that Welsh independence is a process in its infancy. The support could be there to make it viable, but at this present moment in time, it seems that there is a way to go. The Senedd elections in 2021 will be a key indicator for just how far the Welsh public support the notion – if Plaid Cymru make gains then the wheels will be in motion. Depending on the actions of neighbouring independence expeditions, a domino effect of support could flood through and an independent Wales could be closer than we think.
By Derry Salter
It is clear that the constitutional foundations between Northern Ireland and Great Britain are on a knife-edge. After three decades of troubles in Ireland, the Brexit transition period has become a dangerous matter for the constitutional arrangements as paramilitarism is still a reality in Northern Ireland in the present day. Issues concerning the Northern Ireland peace deal have fallen under global scrutiny with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden stressing the importance of protecting such a deal throughout the Brexit process with fears that tensions may arise. A small number of Northern Irish unionists have announced plans to create a sea border by cutting ties with mainland Britain and consequently paving the way for a united Ireland.
Boris Johnson’s government is currently seeking a trade deal with the EU and have voiced their willingness to leave without one numerous times; this would see many complications concerning the Northern Irish border with the Republic of Ireland as it is the UK’s only land border with the EU. The Northern Ireland Protocol, an agreement that aims to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland after Brexit, and the Internal Market Bill aim to keep Northern Ireland united with Great Britain. But it is clear that Northern Ireland are willing to let such unification crumble if a no-deal Brexit is reached.
The UK Government raised the intensity of the debate with Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis claiming they may break international law in a “very specific and limited way”. A shock poll in February concluded that 48 percent of Northern Irish residents would support a unified Ireland after Brexit as a way to regain membership of the EU, with over 55 percent voting in favour of remaining in the EU. However, these plausible interventions will result in little change if a no-deal Brexit follows through as extensive checks will still be required on goods transported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Such tensions have only been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic with Northern Ireland following the lead of Dublin rather than London with their coronavirus policies and restrictions. The global pandemic has resulted in closer relations between Belfast and Dublin through the agreement to share information in order to efficiently tackle the virus. However, Northern Ireland’s choice to follow Dublin’s approach more closely than that of London’s has resulted in pro-British unionists accusing Sinn Fein of turning a public health crisis into a political matter.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the crumbling relations between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as the UK’s united front to tackling coronavirus quickly disappeared and tensions between the countries have arisen. British nationalism manifested through the 2016 Brexit referendum has only increased the stretching of relations and disparities in the United Kingdom with Brexiteers believing that independence from the EU would make the Union great again. But too many feel the Conservative government is failing the Union, and now look to the alternative option: swimming the sea of uncertainty and going it alone.