Investigations Editor


In Investigation Editor Jordan Hunter's article, shortlisted for the Guardian Foundation’s Hugo Young Award, he examines the recent shift against independence.

With Brexit in shambles and a Conservative government looking to stay around longer than what many progressive Scots hoped for, the SNP were looking to capitalise off a series of favourable polls going into the Holyrood elections. However, with the wind blowing their sails and independence just over the horizon, everything suddenly crashed. Trying to make sense of why the tides suddenly turned, and justify another referendum, Nicola fails to understand why things changed. Through Boris’ Bungled Brexit, people realised that staying is easy; leaving a union is harder. 

Let’s rewind a bit. As the 2019 general election came to a close, many Scots believed, at that moment, there was no hope. Despite the constant mess of Brexit negotiations, and a rising distrust of the government, Boris had not only won but expanded his mandate. Even the most committed young Labour members began to believe the only way to escape the Tories was to leave; the alternative being a generation of Conservative governments. 

"Even the most committed young Labour members began to believe the only way to escape the Tories was to leave..."

Fast forward a year, and despite government incompetence in Westminster and Holyrood, there is a perception that Sturgeon is making the best efforts to protect people from both the disease and from losing their jobs. She may be dealing with the care home scandal and the Alex Salmond inquiry, yet she rides a wave of polls supporting independence - an IpsosMORI poll going as high as 55% in the favour of leaving - and a further series of polls showing Scotland's loathing of Boris. Even some Labour candidates read the writing on the walls and tried to throw their weight behind independence at the Scottish elections, like Hollie Cameron, who was promptly booted from running too much internal controversy.

For the independence movement, this was their peak. A flailing Labour Party, and a Tory Prime Minister polling around the same as a Bond villain, presents the independence movement with the golden opportunity it needs to steal the election. In theory, everything was going right for the independence movement. Then, inexplicably, it all fell apart. The polls flip, independence is no longer the majority opinion, and the SNP cannot get their majority in Holyrood. A POLITICO poll from September shows the No vote is leading 47% to the Yes’s 44%, a far cry from the IpsosMORI poll from a year prior.  So, where did it all go wrong? 

"A flailing Labour Party, and a Tory Prime Minister polling around the same as a Bond villain, presents the independence movement with the golden opportunity it needs..."

While Boris would like to think it was his trips to Scotland, the truth is more depressing. Scottish people have witnessed Brexit fail and recognise that independence would likely do the same on a grander scale. Leaving a free trade market meant leaving an economic system built on no visas, no tariffs, no problem. Today, lorry drivers need their goods inspected, people need visas, and trade lines built over decades need to be reimagined. Even the most ardent independence supporter cannot overcome the overwhelming figures showing the rest of the UK as Scotland's largest import-export partner by a large margin.

While the SNP may respond that the EU is a much larger market, much as Boris pointed to the rest of the world as a larger market throughout Brexit campaigning, these links are well established and changes significantly disrupt business. We see this today, as the UK not fully adjusting to the new post-EU market exacerbates the global shortages. Independence supporters might look to the EU for salvation, but there is still no guarantee that it would even accept Scotland, or that the accession process wouldn't result in a long period of Scotland's trade being tariffed by both the UK and the EU. In the end, independence would severely disrupt business; the economy couldn't simply readjust by joining the EU. 

"Independence supporters might look to the EU for salvation, but there is still no guarantee that it would even accept Scotland..."

The idea of a border has furthered this disillusionment. While hardline nationalists have sung about "digging a trench across the border”, we have seen the difficulty of creating borders in Northern Ireland, the world's worst version of the hokey pokey. One could not be faulted for fearing a passport check on the train from Glasgow to Manchester, a young person's inability to go south looking for a job, or an everyday shopping price hike because of tariffs. This still fails to mention how border communities would be split at the seams putting their access to neighbours and local businesses out of reach. 

While the SNP belittled these issues in the past, the same way Brexiteers did, these seemingly innocuous facets of a political decision have real-world economic consequences on everyone. People before the Holyrood election saw these consequences and decided that leaving would only produce more chaos and harm. Boris poorly executed Brexit, but how much better could one reasonably expect a Scexit? Even if you trust Nicola, it’ll still be Tories at the other end of the negotiating table.

"Boris poorly executed Brexit, but how much better could one reasonably expect a Scexit?"

Ross Newton, a young Labour supporter from Glasgow, emboldens this idea. He has previously voted for both for the SNP and for Labour, and even supported independence, but says Brexit contributed to why he now supports the Union saying: "[For Brexit] I naturally found myself on the Remain side. The arguments from the Leave side were eerily familiar; arguments I had been making just a few years previously. If I passionately believed that the UK leaving the European Union was damaging economically, socially and culturally, how could I advocate for Scotland to leave the rest of the UK?” 

Many Scots now feel like their future is dark. Their choice is between a milquetoast Labour party, a Tory government that doesn't represent them, an SNP fanning the idea of independence despite seeing the real-world consequences, and an array of other non-viable parties. No amount of blind optimism by party loyalists will help Scots feel better about their future. 

While independence might be worth it one day, it is not justifiable at the moment. The SNP can spin it however they like, but the delay in the referendum request suggests that Nicola knows she's going to lose her one shot at independence, so long as Brexit continues to demonstrate just how hard it is to leave. 


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