Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Prime Minister has exhorted us almost daily to stay at home and avoid making any journeys unless absolutely necessary. His own trip to Scotland today, ostensibly to visit key workers, but widely seen as the kick-off of his efforts to save the Union, is something he clearly views as essential. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon begs to differ, although privately she is likely to be delighted that the visit gives her an opportunity to draw clear blue water between her administration in Scotland and the rest of the UK.
The 2014 independence referendum was billed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Scottish voters to decide on the future of their nation, but this week the SNP set out an eleven-point ‘roadmap to a referendum’ setting out how it intends to hold another poll if Scottish voters, as expected, return a pro-independence majority to Holyrood in the upcoming elections. So what’s changed?
Back in September, the Times Red Box podcast broadcast a focus group of ten Scottish voters, all of whom had backed the No campaign in the 2014 referendum. Since then, Brexit had become a key motivator for many of them to reconsider, unsurprising given that nearly two-thirds of Scottish voters had wanted to remain in the EU. However, over the past year another factor had emerged – the coronavirus crisis had exposed differences in approach between Sturgeon’s government in Holyrood and Johnson’s in Westminster. A number of participants who had never backed the SNP spoke about how impressed they were by Sturgeon’s leadership during the crisis and their perceptions of mismanagement by Johnson and his government in England. Of the ten former No voters, eight of them were now seriously considering supporting Scottish independence in a future referendum.
If Johnson is such a strong motivating factor for previous sceptics of independence to change their views, why is he heading up to Scotland today? The answer may be in the name of his party – the Conservative and Unionist Party will be expected to put in a strong showing in defence of the Union. With the SNP gains in the 2015 General Election now seemingly a permanent feature of British politics, rather than a temporary shift, it is becoming increasingly challenging for any Prime Minister whose electoral base is primarily in two of the four nations of the UK to claim legitimacy over the whole state.
Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have any representation at devolved or Westminster level in Northern Ireland; the Conservative-Ulster Unionist Party joint ticket in the 2010 General Election failed to return any candidates and was not repeated, while Labour does not run candidates in Northern Ireland, instead supporting nationalist sister party the SDLP. Levels of representation in Scotland are not much better for either of the main parties.The 2019 General Election returned six Conservative MPs north of the border, a loss of seven, and reduced the number of Scottish Labour MPs from seven to just one. However, the 2019 poll saw the Scottish Conservatives win 25% of the vote, not helpful in a first-past-the-post Westminster election, but significant in the context of Holyrood’s additional member electoral system. The Tories need just a five per cent swing to flip seven constituency seats in this year’s Scottish Parliament elections, while 23% of the regional vote in 2016 was enough to deliver the party 24 regional list MSPs.
Johnson is well aware that heading off independence is a long-term game, but the first skirmish is likely to be the Holyrood elections. His visit today is intended to galvanise the Scottish Conservative base and maintain the gains made in the last Holyrood election under popular then-Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. This isn’t about winning votes from the SNP, but rather demonstrating that the Scottish Conservatives are the best option for the significant minority of Scottish voters who want to remain part of the United Kingdom.