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The State of the Union

19 August 2020

By Tim Le Couilliard, Newgate Public Affairs

A Panelbase poll published today has confirmed what many Conservative ministers have been fearing: that the Union of the four nations in the United Kingdom is looking more and more fragile. 

Early in the lockdown there was a suggestion, first mooted by Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford that England’s borders with Wales and Scotland could be closed in an attempt to slow the transition of the virus amongst the regions. Northern Ireland, of course, has its own, natural borders with the rest of the UK and its border with the Republic of Ireland has remained relatively open. 

Perhaps, however, a border fence between our nations may still be erected, as latest polling has shown a lessening enthusiasm for keeping the Union together. Whilst Scotland, where the devolved government is, of course, led by the Scottish Nationalist Party, is the only region which the poll says is in favour of separating, the rest of the UK is pretty divided. 

In a margin smaller than decided the Brexit vote, both England and Northern Ireland only just support maintaining of the Union, by 51-49%. The Welsh are strongly  supportive of the Union with 68% of voters polled in favour of the status quo. In Scotland, 55% support independence, with 45% supporting the Union. Bear in mind, this is a flip on the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum (in which the ‘remain’ vote won 55.3% to 44.7%).

It is timely that this year marks the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, a document prized by Scottish nationalists for its commitment that “For so long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will never in any degree be subject to the dominion of the English”. Whilst celebrations of the anniversary have been muted by the pandemic, the sentiment of the document remains. 

The Conservative and Unionist Party is not unaware of the growing threat to the Union, with government ministers sent north of the border to encourage some support with Chancellor Rishi Sunak the latest to tour Scotland. Only last week, Michael Gove voiced a radical proposal to invite Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, as well as the First Ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland, to take seats at the Government’s Cabinet table. Whilst the proposal was rejected by the Prime Minister, the fact it was considered shows the government’s concern of the state of the Union. 

The upcoming Holyrood elections in May next year will be seen as a key indicator of Scottish public feeling. A big win for the SNP will give Sturgeon a renewed mandate to call for a repeat referendum. Currently a minority government in Scotland, the SNP may well be on track for a majority government in 2021, with key issues such as Brexit and Covid-19 set to play a major role in the outcome.