The man who hopes to lead Scotland to freedom walks with a limp. He just got released from the hospital, his feet safely encased in orthopedic shoes. But Mike Blackshaw, cane in hand, nevertheless shuffles past shelves containing Scottish honey, Scottish mustard and Scottish shortbread to stand proudly in front of his royal blue-painted store. “This is likely my last battle,” he says. “And it looks as though we will emerge victorious.”
It is a Thursday in mid-April at the Edinburgh Yes Hub. The meeting point is essentially the community center for supporters of independence in the southern half of the Scottish capital. And Blackshaw, whose rainbow-colored sweater is almost as large as a clergyman’s cassock, is one of the movement’s high priests.
The 72-year-old is from Grantham in Lincolnshire, where Margaret Thatcher was born, but he left England back in 1966. And when Thatcher came to power, it became clear to him that he would never be returning to England.
Instead, Blackshaw became a Scot, and a freedom fighter. “We are different from England,” he says. “More equal, more caring, more cosmopolitan.” He has been involved in all independence struggles thus far and has never wavered. He opened up his Scotland shop in 2014 after the first Scottish independence referendum was lost. Following that setback, tens of thousands of people joined the Scottish National Party (SNP) within weeks, and Blackshaw was certain: “There will be a second referendum.”
Now, seven years later, he doesn’t think the wait will be much longer.
On May 6, 5.5 million Scots will elect a new regional parliament. And there is hardly any doubt that the SNP, which has been in power for the last 14 years, will once again emerge with a decisive victory. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been refreshingly honest about what she intends to do once that victory is in the books: With a clear mandate from the voters in hand, she will explore all possibilities at her disposal to lead Scotland to independence. As such, she has said, this election will be “without question, the most important in Scotland’s history.”
The hurdles to a second independence referendum are high. Without approval from London, Sturgeon will likely be unable to hold a legal vote. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already said that he would block any attempt by Scotland to seek independence.
Still, everybody in Britain is now fully aware what Johnson’s promises are worth. Plus, even the government in Westminster has come to realize that a blanket “no” to a new referendum would be difficult to uphold, since it would only serve to add fuel to the independence fire in Scotland.
More than anything, though, there has been a “material change in circumstances” of the kind the SNP made a condition for a second referendum. Brexit. London pulled almost two-thirds of Scottish voters out of the European Union against their will. And many would like to return to the European family as soon as possible.
Even if it means rejoining as a newborn nation.
So is Scexit on its way? Are we going to see the end of the 314-year-old Act of Union, which launched the never easy but long successful marriage between Scotland and England? It would be the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom. The forces unleashed by Brexit would then be almost impossible to stop.
In Northern Ireland as well, which became part of the UK exactly 100 years ago and is a place where Brexit has triggered renewed violence, those in favor of Irish reunion would see momentum shift in their favor.
That would leave England and an increasingly recalcitrant Wales back within their 17th century borders and perhaps completely encircled by the hated EU.
A Fateful Election
For that reason, these regional elections aren’t any normal vote. Rather, the election could be a fateful one, not least for Boris Johnson.
For the past several months in London, it has been possible to see just how great the panic is when it comes to the future of Scotland. Back in late 2019, on the eve of Britain’s official departure from the EU, Johnson assembled a “Union unit,” made up of high-ranking officials, whose task was that of coming up with ideas to appease England’s neighbor to the north.
Not much came of it, but since then, Westminster has launched new initiatives at regular intervals, including a Union Policy Implementation Committee, a Union Taskforce, and, most recently, a Union Strategy Committee, the leadership of which Johnson has reserved for himself.
The Conservative government has even turned to the former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown for help. During his days as a journalist, Johnson wrote a column lampooning Brown, writing that he should never become prime minister “mainly because he is a Scot.” Now, Johnson is hoping Brown can help keep the UK from falling apart.
In the meantime, London has committed to “lovebomb Scotland” as it is said. Or, if need be, with money: To avoid the influence of the SNP, Johnson and the Tories hope to launch a number of multimillion-pound infrastructure projects in Scotland. Furthermore, hundreds of civil servants are to move from London to Glasgow to demonstrate the UK’s commitment to Scotland – which is also the purpose of the new government hub established in Edinburgh, where the London cabinet intends to regularly meet in the future.
Rarely before have so many people in London thought so intensively about Scotland. Unfortunately for the Brexit-obsessed government in Westminster, they find themselves in something of an argumentative quandary: For years, they have been telling the British populace that true sovereignty was only possible outside of the European Union and that warnings of economic turbulence were nothing but scaremongering.
Now, though, they are claiming that Scotland can only survive within the British union, and are warning of economic disaster should Scotland withdraw. In order to preserve unity, the Brexiteers are having to swallow their own convictions. That’s not easy, even for a politician with above-average pliability like Boris Johnson.
The Scots have thus far been largely unimpressed by the efforts Johnson has made to woo them. On the contrary, since the Brexit referendum, support for independence has risen significantly, burgeoning to 59 percent in the second half of 2020. The independence movement has slowed more recently, in part due to the accusation of sexual harassment leveled by several women against Sturgeon’s predecessor Alex Salmond. That has not, though, been enough to knock the SNP from its path, and the party continues to hold a dominant position in public opinion polls.
The Scottish National Party – which pursues a left-wing, social democratic agenda despite its name – has mostly Nicola Sturgeon to thank for that. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the 50-year-old has done all she can to position Scotland as a cosmopolitan alternative to isolationist Brexit-Britain.
Help from the Pandemic
Whereas the Tories have made their commitment to reducing immigration into something of a fetish, Sturgeon has invited the world to Scotland. And while London was involved in a never-ending conflict with the EU, Sturgeon – whose stoic composure is occasionally reminiscent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – developed close links with Brussels.
The first minister has garnered sympathy for that which she is not: She is not anti-EU, she is not conservative, and she is not Boris Johnson. The UK prime minister is so disliked in wide swaths of Scotland that he didn’t even bother to make appearances there during the campaign.
Even the pandemic has played into Sturgeon’s hands in a certain sense. Whereas Johnson seemed to spend months blundering through the crisis without a plan, transforming England into one of the worst-hit regions in Europe, the head of government in Edinburgh was single-minded and clear-sighted. Relative to its population, Scotland ultimately did no better in the crisis than its neighbor to the south, but the impression left behind by Sturgeon was that she could do it – and the others couldn’t.
And because regional governments are responsible for health policy, Sturgeon was able to sell her strategy as a truly Scottish approach. In the pandemic, the different nations operated as independently from one another as they otherwise only do on the football or rugby pitch. There was even a debate about reintroducing borders. Sturgeon’s threat to stop travelers from the pandemic hotspot of England at the border to Scotland became legendary.
The result has been that the idea of an independent Scottish state slowly took shape. “A new country, one where every person really feels represented and isn’t proud of their colonial and racist heritage.” That, at least, is Valentina Servera Clavell’s vision, as she sits on the windowsill of her shared apartment in southern Glasgow on a recent sunny afternoon.
She has just returned to her chosen home country from Barcelona and has to spend a few more days in quarantine. Then, the 22-year-old plans to jump into the campaign and focus on reminding “new Scots” of their right to vote. She, after all, is one of them.
Servera was 18 when she came to Glasgow for her university studies. And apart from the weather, perhaps, she sees no reason to ever leave. The Scots, she says, are “a bit crazy” and, like the Andalusians, have “salsa in their blood.” She says the Scots may soon have the unique opportunity to leave the “Empire Museum” called the United Kingdom and establish a modern country according to the Scandinavian example.
The young woman, who refers to herself as a “Catalonian Scot” and speaks English as if blurted from a machine gun, wants to be part of it. She has a debt to pay. As a young member of the regional party Esquerra, she once fought in vain for Catalonia’s independence from Spain. As a member of the SNP, she now wants to “at least help this country to be free.”
Scotland, Servera is certain, has “the resources, the minds and the ability” to exist as an independent nation. Of course there are problems, she allows, in education policy, for example, and other areas – and the number of people who die from drug abuse, the highest in Europe, is horrifying. But she believes that the government in London is the primary culprit, having forgotten the people in their pursuit of their dream of Brexit. Scotland has been voting left of center for years, she points out, yet continues to be stuck with a right-wing conservative government in London. “Now is the chance to change that.”
A Warning for Scotland
Still, says Servera, whatever the SNP does after the election, it has to be legal. Her old homeland of Catalonia, she says, is further away from independence than ever after holding an illegal referendum in 2017. “That is a warning for Scotland.”
Nicola Sturgeon is aware of that as well, which is why she has ruled out the possibility of holding an unlawful referendum, which would be boycotted by the Tories. Instead, she will use her upcoming election victory to portray Johnson as an anti-democrat who is denying Scotland precisely what he and the other Brexiteers insisted was Britain’s right: Taking fate into their own hands.
To up the pressure, the SNP will soon seek to lay the legal foundations for IndyRef2, as they are calling the second independence referendum. That could force Johnson to take the case all the way to the country’s highest court. And that would be a losing proposition for the prime minister, since it would give the SNP yet another opportunity to portray Johnson as an enemy of democracy. It would take some time, to be sure, but Sturgeon is in no hurry.
She is playing the long game, even if her predecessor Salmond is insisting on a referendum this year with his new ultra-nationalist Alba Party. “For Sturgeon, the most important thing is that she can also win a referendum,” says Jan Eichhorn, a social scientist at the University of Edinburgh. He says that 44 to 45 percent of Scots are definitively in the independence camp. Should the referendum be held in the period following a successful vaccination campaign, with Britain recovering from the crisis, it would be difficult, Eichhorn believes, to convince the additional 10 percent of voters necessary for a clear referendum victory.
Sturgeon, though, has a plan. If she gets her way, the question of Scottish independence would be decided in the first half of the coming legislative period, meaning the end of 2023 at the latest. That timeline has the advantage that Boris Johnson would still be in Downing Street, a man many in the SNP refer to as their “most effective recruiter.”
More to the point, however, many young Scots – a demographic that tends to be passionate supporters of Scottish independence, according to surveys – will have reached voting age by then. Or, as senior SNP member Angus Robertson controversially put it, the trend has been toward independence “with roughly 55,000 predominantly Yes supporting 16-year-olds joining the electorate and 55,000 predominantly No supporting older voters passing away every year.”
As things currently stand, the SNP doesn’t have to do much more at the moment than simply wait around for the end of Britain as currently constituted. Particularly given that many people in the not-so-united kingdom are apparently attracted by the idea of splitting off. And not just in Scotland. According to a YouGov survey, almost half of the people in England wouldn’t be opposed to – or would even welcome – Scottish independence.
“The Idea of Splitting Up an Island Is Abhorrent”
The man who could still save the kingdom lives in a Hobbit-esque landscape in southern Scotland, where verdant hills full of newborn lambs, moss-covered walls and low hedges surround a hamlet not far from Dumfries. A gravel lane leads to a grand, red-sandstone manor whose high-ceilinged salon is covered with portraits and busts of Arafat, Lenin, Fidel, Che and – Churchill. Sitting on a red velvet sofa in the middle of the room on this morning is the lord of the manor, and before a question has even been asked, George Galloway says: “The idea of splitting up an island is abhorrent.”
Galloway is wearing a woad-green fleece and horn-rimmed glasses, his eyebrows frequently rising above them. His political journey has been a circuitous one. For a decade and a half, he represented Labour in the lower house before he, as an opponent of the war in Iraq, became too leftist for Tony Blair’s party. He went on to found, lead or support a number of other parties, attracting criticism for his links to Russia and Iran. He also became a vociferous critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and has never shied away from other political battles either.
Now, Galloway is 67 and has returned to his Scottish homeland, where he founded the party All for Unity in July 2020. It has become home both to left-wing outsiders like himself as well as arch-conservatives – all with a common goal: that of forming a bulwark against the SNP.
Galloway believes that an independent Scotland would be destined to fail. Even today, he says, around half of the people in Scotland are dependent on public money in one way or another. As soon as Scotland split off from England, “the remaining taxpayers would flee in droves,” Galloway believes. Shortly after that, he continues, the EU would turn the country into its “toy” out of “revenge for Brexit.”
To prevent that, Galloway is seeking to establish a tactical electoral alliance between the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. His hope is that if only one SNP opponent were to run in each constituency, namely the one with the best chance at victory, it might be possible to siphon off several seats from the governing party. That could, in fact, be a successful approach, but thus far, the large parties haven’t shown much enthusiasm for the idea.
The result is that not even Galloway is sure anymore that “Scotland’s greatest folly” can be avoided. Still, he doesn’t believe that a possible Scottish secession would be the end of the story. It could be that border regions such as Dumfries or islands like the Shetlands would then split off from Scotland to remain part of the UK.
“Wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if the split up of the UK were to result in the split up of Scotland?” asks Galloway.
The even larger irony, though, is that Brexit opponents spent years issuing the same warning in an attempt to prevent Britain from leaving the EU.
Those warnings, though, went largely unheard.