It seemed at the beginning of 2020 that the year would be a turning point for Scotland: looming Holyrood elections, Alex Salmond’s trial, the newly bolstered representation of the SNP in Westminster and an ever closer Brexit deadline. In January, approval ratings for the Scottish National Party remained high, Sturgeon was praised for her commitment to a new referendum and polls for Scottish Independence showed a lead for ‘Yes’ voters for the first time since early 2015 (YouGov, 30 January 2020).
Few politicians had the foresight to understand the global pandemic that would unsettle the world in months to come, and thus for the majority of political leaders the crisis has unleashed fierce criticism and waning popularity, particularly as the financial ramifications of the crisis are illuminated. Despite an initial uptake in political favourability, the pandemic has increased reprove levelled at political leaders and parties across the world. Voting intentions for the UK Conservative party continue to plummet, accounting for a drop in the Conservative lead by over 10 per cent (The Guardian, 14 July 2020). IPSOS noted a 63 per cent disapproval rating for Emmanuel Macron between the 16 and 17 of July (IPSOS, 22 July 2020); and Donald Trump continues to suffer in the polls. ‘Europe Elects’ data reflects the falling ratings for numerous populist parties across Europe: the Lega Nord by 4 per cent and the Rassemblement National and Alternative Für Deutschland (AfD) falling by 2 per cent in June. Vox España’s popularity wains as the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS) research shows that 90 per cent of respondents wanted greater cooperation from opposition leaders during the crisis (OpenDemocracy, 19 June 2020).
In contrast, the Scottish National Party has witnessed staunch support. Three quarters of Scots (74 per cent of 1095 Scottish adults asked) have indicated overwhelming support for the Scottish government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. It appears that 2020 may still be the turning point in the independence movement: the SNP government has cross-party support with 7 out of 10 (Scottish) Conservative and Labour voters praising the handling of the crisis. The sampled population indicates significant confidence in Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership: 71 per cent are confident in her ability to make the right decisions regarding the pandemic (YouGov, 01 May 2020).
Indeed, when compared to approval ratings and opinion polls for the United Kingdom, the sentiment in Scotland may mark the most dramatic turning point for independence yet. Scots’ approval of Boris Johnson reaches only 40% and is particularly partisan, with just 16% of SNP voters indicating confidence in the Prime Minister’s leadership (compared to 85% of Conservative voters). Scots are the least likely to think the UK government is handling the coronavirus outbreak ‘well’ and Nicola Sturgeon has been voted the ‘most popular’ public figure in the United Kingdom (YouGov, 01 May 2020). Voting intentions for the SNP continue to rise, contributing to an ever more likely outright majority in the 2021 Holyrood elections, on a more staunchly pro-independence manifesto.
Boris Johnson’s visit to Scotland just last week reflects a panic settling in Downing Street. With growing admiration for Sturgeon’s leadership of the SNP, the increased reality of a ‘Yes’ result has sparked fear across Westminster. However, the increased likelihood of independence, or at least a more vehemently powerful independence-campaigning SNP, has made the chosen rhetoric of the Conservative’s sudden presence in Scotland even more subject to scrutiny. Last week, Johnson (following four UK ministers who have visited Scotland in recent weeks) pressed the success of the UK’s financial support — arguing that Scotland could not have fared so well without the 'Furlough Scheme’ and economic assistance provided to businesses. Indeed, Chancellor Sunak’s stunt north of the border drew attention to the monetary aid, as he declared across his morning broadcast appearances on the 07 August: £2.3 billion has been funnelled to over 65,000 firms in Scotland since lockdown.
Such rhetoric nevertheless ignores the fact that the coronavirus response in Scotland has been a story of devolution. A story of pride and national identity. With the majority of key services central to the response devolved — for example social care and education, it is Scotland’s experience of a different timetable in the easing of lockdown that has highlighted Sturgeon’s ability to lead the nation in its own direction. Whether or not there exists an extensive difference in policy (or a real financial crutch from the UK’s central bank), the affected support and approval for the Scottish government and Nicola Sturgeon remains far more positive than their Westminster counterparts. While Brexit has long strengthened the centrifugal forces affecting Scotland, it appears that the handling of this crisis has only accelerated the SNP’s standing with the Scottish public, and has likely set the pace for a victorious majority in next year’s election.
Image: via WikiCommons