Lesley Riddoch

How London will help Scotland get independence

How London will help Scotland get independence
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The Scottish election may be a done deal but the move towards indyref2 is the next big thing. And on that rocky road Scots independence supporters may have some unusual allies: English public opinion and much of the London-based press.

Curiously enough, these forces may be ready to apply powerful pressure on a beleaguered Boris Johnson to do the right thing by Scots if a majority of independence-supporting MSPs are elected on May 6 as expected. Indeed, if Nicola Sturgeon takes her time demanding the Section 30 powers that let her hold a lawful referendum, mad-for-it London hacks may hold Nicola's feet to the fire more effectively than a SNP/Green/Alba supermajority at Holyrood.

A peculiar, informal, pro-indyref consensus has been forming quietly south of the border, and is now finding its way past the blanket opposition of Messrs Johnson and Starmer into the public domain. One UK Cabinet minister recently told the Sunday Times: 'I don’t see how we keep saying no forever. The time to do [indyref2] would be in the middle of economic chaos, not when it’s all looking rosy.' The New Statesman quoted a Tory Holyrood candidate: 'I’m coming round to indyref2 immediately. Short and sharp. Twelve months to decide. Either way.'

These anonymous Conservatives are more in step with public opinion south of the border than their leader. A fortnight ago, an Ipsos MORI poll found 51 per cent of English voters thought Nicola Sturgeon should be allowed to stage a fresh referendum if she wins a majority next week (in a hefty UK sample of 8,500 people). Meanwhile 52 per cent believe the UK will not exist in its present form within a decade.

An Opinium poll in January found Sturgeon was the most popular leader in both Scotland and the UK and a YouGov poll months earlier found the SNP leader was rated more popular than Boris Johnson in every region of England bar one — doubtless a function of her down-to-earth, daily TV and radio briefings during the long Boris-free months of the pandemic. For many English viewers throughout 2020, a political figure previously viewed as a moaning Scottish agent of disruption became a source of coherent, reliable Covid information.

Sturgeon’s visibility may also have persuaded younger Red Wall Tories that the end of the Union is inevitable and there’s nowt to be gained by forcing such articulate, popular critics of Rule Britannia to stay on board. Some Brexiters may have genuine sympathy for Scotland’s inability to follow Westminster’s lead and ‘take back control’.

Labour supporters admire Sturgeon’s consistent opposition to conservatism and see Scots slowly creating the kind of country they’d like to inhabit. Perhaps a left-leaning independent Scotland would be an alternative role model for England — or an escape route and bolthole if Tory domination of Westminster looks endless and inescapable under Keir Starmer.

At a more basic level, the prospect of a 300-year-old union crumbling is an epic one for journalists hooked to the adrenalin of the hyper-eventful Boris/Brexit years and subconsciously craving the drama of another constitutional meltdown. Certainly, at recent conferences, English academics have revealed they are praying and actively organising for Scottish independence as the only shock large enough to create system change at Westminster. 

There may be a bit of impatience in there too. I get the feeling many empowered English journalists — now fully aware of Scotland’s different political culture — can’t understand why the nation didn’t vote Yes in 2014. In our place, they wouldn't have countenanced being so badly 'messed around' for a second.

So, for a variety of reasons, political opinion in England is leaning towards Scottish independence or at least the democratic right to have a second vote. Essentially Sturgeon and independence have become the unlikely best hope of the left in London and other Remain voting English cities — the fastest way to disrupt the British status quo and jump-start progressive change in England.

Never mind the queue for Irish passports. If Scotland becomes independent, there could be a headlong dash north as one-bedroom flats in London are traded for bigger properties in a new, modern, Europe-friendly, social-democratic Scottish state.

Cloud cuckoo land? Judging from the recent plethora of reports by senior civil servants like Philip Rycroft and Ciaran Martin, a great many ‘liberals’ now despair about Westminster’s descent into chumocracy and cronyism and though political parties have abandoned English Remainers, the urge to reconnect with Europe hasn’t gone away.

Do such folk spend the rest of their working lives trying to democratise the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ and reverse Brexit or admit defeat, cut their losses and try their luck in a new-old country with a more deeply-embedded sense of constitutional order? Whatever the explanation, London interest in the Scotland-led break-up of the UK has built steadily since support for independence started topping the 50 per cent mark in the middle of last year.

Nicola Sturgeon may soon rival Nigel Farage for repeat appearances on the Marr Show and columnists in every paper and magazine (including this one) openly speculate about the imminent break-up of the Union.

David Tennant’s cheeky stunt as guest presenter of Have I Got News for You last month was a sign of the times. The Bathgate-born presenter suggested HIGNFY might get in trouble with Union-Jack fixated government ministers by having no flags in the studio. Announcing 'I think I can fix that,' a curtain of massive Saltires appeared behind Tennant who smilingly planted a small Scottish flag on his desk to laughter and applause from the London-based audience.

It was a telling broadcasting moment, since independence-supporting Tennant must have had the BBC production team onside to bring off his masterful wheeze. Clearly HIGNFY is a bit of a law unto itself – but still. Scottishness has become the most eloquent riposte to Union Jackery. This metropolitan interest in all things Scottish is breathing affirmation into independence as surely as collective indifference eroded confidence in 2014.

So, there's quite a head of steam developing – quite a narrative being created. What will happen if the gallus Ms Sturgeon wins her majority but fails to oblige with a near-immediate request for powers to hold another independence referendum? I'd imagine hell hath no fury like the London press pack disappointed. Yessers may have been marched up the hill and down again for the last seven years without much complaint but, strangely enough, I don’t imagine the London press pack will be so forgiving.

Written byLesley Riddoch

Lesley Riddoch is a journalist, broadcaster and columnist for the Scotsman and The National. She is the author of Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish.

Topics in this articleScotland