THE Union of the United Kingdom is today facing mounting pressure on two fronts as opinion polls suggest that a majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland now want referendums on their membership of it within the next five years.
The snapshots, commissioned by The Sunday Times, come as the SNP has set itself on a constitutional collision course with the UK Government, announcing that if, as expected, it gets a majority in May’s Scottish parliamentary elections, then, once the pandemic is over, it will stage its own “legal referendum” and dare Boris Johnson to challenge it in court.
Michael Russell, the Scottish Government’s Constitution Secretary, will present the 11-point “roadmap to a referendum” to the party’s virtual National Assembly later today, which will look at “alternative routes” to independence.
It states a “legal referendum” will be held after the pandemic if there is a pro-independence majority following the Holyrood poll and that any attempt by the UK Government to challenge the legality of it in the courts would be “vigorously opposed”.
What some will dub a Catalan-style referendum will lead to a battle in the courts, possibly leading all the way to a ruling by the UK Supreme Court. The Prime Minister has made repeatedly clear that he will not facilitate another referendum and even suggested the timescale for Indyref2 would be around 2055.
Yesterday, when asked about whether the SNP had a Plan B should Mr Johnson simply keep saying no, Ian Blackford, the Nationalist leader at Westminster, made clear that he preferred the “gold standard” option, that is, Westminster empowering Holyrood to stage Indyref2 as was the case in 2014.
One of the new polls suggests 50% of people in Scotland want another vote on the nation’s future within the next five years ie within the term of the next Holyrood Parliament following the elections in May; 43% said no there should not be one within the next five years.
Some 49% of Scottish voters said they thought it likely Scotland would be independent within 10 years while 30% said it was unlikely. Indeed, across the whole of the UK the survey suggested all nations believed this would be the case with the split between those thinking Scottish independence before 2031 would be likely or unlikely being 60% to 28% in Northern Ireland, 49% to 19% in England and 49% to 23% in Wales.
The snapshot put support for Scottish independence at 49% with those opposed at 44% and the don’t knows on 7%. This is now the 20th consecutive poll to put the Yes campaign ahead.
A state of the parties forecast suggests in May the SNP would win 70 seats, up seven since the last election in 2016, with the Conservatives on 25, down six, Labour on 19, down four, the Greens on 10, up four, and the Liberal Democrats unchanged on five.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland 51% of voters said they wanted a border poll within the next five years while 44% did not; 5% did not know.
Ulster unionists have only a small lead over those who support a united Ireland, 47% to 42%. However, another 11% remain undecided.
Other snapshots in England and Wales showed majorities against these nations becoming independent.
Last week, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office Minister, who often leads for the UK Government on Union matters in media interviews, chaired a Whitehall meeting with other senior ministers, who included the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to discuss a campaign to promote the Union ahead of the Holyrood poll.
The has reported how the UK Government is planning a “big push” to promote the Union as, post-Brexit and post-Covid, the constitution is moving towards the top of the political agenda.
Battling the coronavirus has dominated business in London and Edinburgh but George Osborne, the former Chancellor, noted last week how “Brexit has made the future of the UK the central political issue of the coming decade”.
Mr Johnson, who also styles himself the Minister for the Union, is said to be intent on beefing up Downing St’s Union Unit and is believed to be planning a major speech on the constitution ahead of Easter.
The UK Government’s Union Policy Implementation Committee has drawn up a programme that will include mounting a big fight in the Holyrood poll led by Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, alongside a campaign to promote the benefits of the Union. The Dunlop Review on strengthening the Union, which has been sitting on Mr Johnson’s desk since December 2019 and has constantly pushed back because of the focus on tackling coronavirus, looks set to see the light of day in the next few weeks before purdah sets in and bans any Government announcements.
Mr Gove has already been in contact with Gordon Brown, the former Labour premier, and other senior politicians on how to draw up a strategy to save the Union.
There has even been talk in Whitehall of including Scotland’s role in the Union as part of the Conservatives’ promised constitution commission, which should have started work last year but, again, was delayed because of the Covid crisis.
Such a move would be seen by some Tories as a means of buying time in the constitutional battle ahead but would be dismissed by Yes campaigners as a naked attempt to try to kick the issue of independence into the political long grass.
One minister, talking of the plight of the Union, noted: “I don’t think there is any member of the Cabinet, who doesn’t realise how important this is.”
Oliver Lewis, a leading light in the Vote Leave campaign and who served as Lord Frost’s deputy in the Brexit negotiations, is expected to take charge of the backroom strategy to save the Union.
Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, and Kwasi Kwarteng, the new Business Secretary, also attended last week’s Union Committee as one of Mr Johnson’s early priorities in his talks with Joe Biden, the new American President, whom he spoke to on Saturday, is to get the US tariffs on whisky lifted. If this could happen in the run-up to the Holyrood poll, this would be promoted as a major coup for the Unionist cause. The tariffs have led to a 30% drop in Scotch whisky sales in America, representing around $250 million of lost business.
Today’s survey suggests a mixture of Brexit, the responses to the pandemic by Mr Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon, and many Scots’ aversion to the PM had helped the rise in support for independence and staging another vote north of the border. Indeed, this paper has been told some Scottish Tories believe Mr Johnson is a “liability” and will be urged by candidates standing for the party at the Scottish parliamentary election to stay away.
Responding to the Scottish poll, Keith Brown, the Nationalists’ deputy leader, said: “With 20 consecutive polls putting support for independence above 50%, it’s clear that people in Scotland believe they have the right to decide their own future rather than being subjected to Westminster governments that they don’t vote for, led by the likes of Boris Johnson.
“By imposing a devastating hard Brexit in the middle of a global pandemic, causing chaos for our fishing industry, grabbing powers from the Scottish Parliament and denying democracy in a Trump-like fashion, the Tories have shown they cannot be trusted to act in the interests of the people of Scotland.
These polls are encouraging, but the SNP will not take anything for granted. The only way to deliver an independence referendum and put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands, not those of Boris Johnson, is with both votes going to the SNP.”
He added: “Scotland has the right to escape the Brexit mess caused by the Tories, and choose a better future as an equal, independent nation in Europe.”
The First Minister is set to give her response to the latest polls when she appears on BBC-1’s Andrew Marr Show this morning.
In his interview yesterday with The Mr Blackford, while stressing independence was the best solution for Scotland, did not trash the idea of having a devo-max option on any Indyref2 ballot paper.
Full federalism is Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ preferred option. While Sir Keir Starmer has been adamantly opposed to staging another Scottish referendum in the run-up to the May elections, his views thereafter are unclear.
Some at Westminster believe that, given the mountain Labour has to climb to get a Commons majority at the 2024 General Election – it would need a swing larger than the one Tony Blair secured in the party’s landslide in1997 – that Sir Keir, if Labour became the biggest party, might consider a confidence and supply arrangement with the SNP whose price would be Indyref2.
Last night, a UK Government spokesman said: “People in all corners of the country want to see politicians across the UK working in partnership to focus on defeating the coronavirus.
“That remains the top priority of the UK government, which has supported jobs and businesses across all four nations throughout the pandemic. The government is supporting the devolved administrations in their vaccination programmes, with the British armed forces helping to establish 80 new Covid-19 vaccine centres in Scotland.
“The question of Scottish independence was settled decisively in 2014, when Scotland voted to remain part of the UK.
“Now, more than ever, we should be pulling together to strengthen our United Kingdom, instead of trying to separate it.”
Panelbase polled 1,206 adults resident in Scotland between January 19 and 22. YouGov polled 1,416 English adults between January 19 and 20, and 1,059 people in Wales aged 16 and over between January 18 and 21. Lucidtalk polled 2,392 people in Northern Ireland aged 16 and over between January 15 and 18.