In addition to the COVID-19 outbreak, UK Prime Minister Boris is facing another challenge in the steady rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and its independence agenda.
Ahead of embarking on a charm offensive in Scotland last week, the UK prime minister urged his government to address Scottish issues more frequently and spend more time addressing issues north of the border.
Johnson's Unionist Bid & Plummeting Approval
Meanwhile, Johnson's tour to the land of the brave appears to have not played out as as he wanted, as Twitter users mocked the British premier with the "BorisFarewellTour" hashtag while Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused him of using the coronavirus pandemic “as some kind of political weapon”.
"This is a pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 50,000 people across the UK. We have all tried to do our best, but I don’t think any of us have got any grounds to crow or to feel satisfied about this", Sturgeon said in response to Johnson's statement that the UK's coronavirus response demonstrated a "sheer might" of the union.
The UK has suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic, with one of the highest mortality rates per capita in the world, acknowledges Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh.
"The best measure is excess deaths overall, and as of last week this was 89 per 100,000 population in Scotland compared with 101 per 100,000 for England", she says. "Northern Ireland has fared best of the UK nations with 50 deaths per 100,000 population. These differences are modest, but public support in government has been much higher in Scotland".
Sturgeon has enjoyed the backing of almost 60% of Scots over her handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. In contrast, the Johnson cabinet's approval ratings have plummeted over No 10's coronavirus response.
"Most measures to deal with Covid-19 (such as the health service and public health) are devolved to the Scottish government", explains Bauld. "So COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to show what devolution can achieve. In this case, fewer deaths and clearer communication. This has strengthened the case for Scottish independence".
Still, the crux of the matter is that "the finances available to support services in Scotland, and wider economic measures including for the unemployed, are dependent on the UK government", since "Scotland does not have independent tax raising powers", she underscores.
SNP and Upcoming 2021 Holyrood
Mark Garnett, a politics professor at Lancaster University, acknowledges that "the pandemic has, at the very least, made people aware of the fragmentation of the UK produced by devolution".
"This has been clear in the different responses of the administrations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but most of all in relation to Scotland where Nicola Sturgeon has presented a stark contrast to Boris Johnson", he observes. "Although her political situation is very different, she has always given the impression of being guided by the advice of health specialists rather than economists or other political actors".
The coronavirus pandemic has added to already-simmering tensions over the UK divorce with the EU, which Scotland opposed from the outset, the academic remarks.
"Combined with the 'Brexit' situation, I would judge that this has made Scottish independence more likely, although Sturgeon is still a divisive figure in Scotland and in any future referendum campaign the SNP will be faced with the kind of questions which damaged the drive for independence in 2014 - especially the future currency of an independent Scotland, its relationship with the EU, and the status of the UK's (largely Scottish-based) nuclear 'deterrent'", Garnett opines.
The upcoming 2021 Holyrood elections may further solidify SNP positions, as the party is likely to win in a landslide, according to recent polls. Citing Panelbase surveys, The Courier noted that Scottish independence proponents could secure 74 out of 129 seats in the Scottish parliament next year.
Although Johnson ruled out the possibility of a new Scottish independence referendum in January 2020, the Tories and Scottish Labour deem that the surest way to avoid yet another plebiscite is to prevent the SNP from winning the outright majority in 2021, according to The Spectator. It's not clear, however, how this objective could be met in the foreseeable future. "Expect a focus on attacking Sturgeon for failings on education and coronavirus", the media outlet presumed.
Meanwhile, unionists argue that an independent Scotland would have been unable to funnel so much public money to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Through UK government support, over 900,000 Scottish jobs have been protected and thousands of businesses have been granted loans. This is in addition to £4.6 billion ($5.92 billion) given to the Scottish administration", a No 10 spokesperson claimed on 20 July.
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