By Jamie Dettmer
A year ago, Boris Johnson’s tenure as Britain’s prime minister looked to some like it might be short-lived. Brexit woes and a string of missteps and abrupt U-turns in the government’s handling of the pandemic prompted Conservative lawmakers to hazard privately that his days would likely be numbered.
And they were betting on his likely departure date.
That kind of talk has evaporated now. Johnson has bounced back — characteristically, grumble his naysayers, who see him as a fortunate opportunist who gets saved by being lucky. Johnson largely has a successful and quick coronavirus vaccine rollout to thank for his current approval rating of 46%, according to the latest surveying by pollster YouGov.
His party is riding high, too, with a poll last week putting the Conservatives 14 points ahead of the main Labour opposition, with the parties on 43% and 29% respectively.
But Johnson has another monumental political challenge ahead: how to keep the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from breaking apart, say analysts.
The “union is now weaker than at any point in living memory,” judges Britain’s influential weekly Economist magazine. The chances of a breakup are mounting. “The causes are many, but Brexit is the most important,” the magazine noted. And it blames Johnson partly for the rising risks “by putting party above country and espousing a hard Brexit.”
The Scots and Northern Irish never wanted to leave the European Union and voted in the 2016 referendum to stay in the EU, in Scotland’s case overwhelmingly by 62% to 30%. The Scottish Nationalist Party led by Nicola Sturgeon has used Brexit to argue that Scotland should get another opportunity to hold a plebiscite on independence.
In a 2014 referendum the Scots voted to remain a constituent part of Britain by 55.3 to 44.7 and that plebiscite was run on the basis, as far as the Conservatives were concerned, as a “once in a generation vote.” The then SNP leader, Alex Salmond, also accepted that there should be a “generational” gap before another independence referendum.
But Brexit has changed that — as far as the SNP is concerned. And Scottish public opinion appears increasingly behind the idea of having another independence vote. Polling data suggests that the Scottish Nationalists will storm to a big win in next month’s Scottish Parliament’s elections and seem set to win an overall majority. The SNP is campaigning for another independence plebiscite to be held by 2023. And public surveys suggest a small majority would back seceding from Britain.
London and Edinburgh are on course for a political collision. Johnson has said he is adamantly opposed to another referendum, arguing Britain cannot keep on running plebiscites. Earlier this year he said there should be a 40-year gap between the first and a second Scottish independence referendum — similar to the interval between British referendums on Europe in 1975 and 2016.
“Referendums in my experience, direct experience, in this country are not particularly jolly events,” he told the BBC. “They don’t have a notably unifying force in the national mood, they should be only once-in-a-generation,” he added.
The British parliament would have to endorse holding another referendum, according to constitutional lawyers. But the SNP-controlled is exploring legal avenues and a prolonged battle in the courts and political tussle is in the offing, adding another high-stakes, dramatic confrontation in Britain’s era of Brexit-wrought chaos, say analysts.
The SNP has steered clear of suggesting it would call a wildcat referendum along the lines Catalonian separatists did in Spain in 2017, which triggered a violent standoff between Madrid and Barcelona. Nationalists currently recognize that a ‘non-legal’ vote could easily be de-legitimized with a boycott campaign the British government would almost certainly organize, calling on union-supporting Scots ignore the vote.
In the run-up to next month’s Scottish parliament elections, Scotland nationalists have been arguing that Johnson would have no political or moral option but to grant another referendum, if faced with the demand for one from a vehement Scottish parliament.
Last week, Sturgeon said she believes Johnson will have to grant another independence vote. “If people in Scotland vote for a party saying, ‘when the time is right, there should be an independence referendum,’ you cannot stand in the way of that, and I don’t think that is what will happen,” she said.
Nonetheless, most Westminster lawmakers say they are bracing for Britain to be thrust into yet another time-consuming and energy-sapping political and constitutional struggle just as it is trying to plot a new international course for itself in the wake of Brexit and while it is attempting repair damaged relations with its European neighbors.
Britain and the world
U.S. officials say privately they are concerned with the prospects of Britain, a key foreign-policy and defense ally, being preoccupied by more domestic upheaval. The Biden administration is banking on London to assist it in strengthening Western democracy. There are also Washington worries about the implications for Britain in the event that Scotland does break away.
Would a diminished Britain get to keep its permanent seat on the U.N. security council? And what would happen to Britain’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent? They are just two key questions being pondered by officials in Washington as well as European capitals.
George Grant, a former associate fellow at The Henry Jackson Society, a London think tank, told VOA recently that one destabilizing spin-off of a Scottish secession would be “the disruption of Britain’s military capability, specifically its nuclear deterrent.” Grant wrote a report on the defense implications of a Scotland departure.
Scottish independence would mean the Royal Navy would lose its base at Faslane, the home port of Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines, and the base at Coulport, where the missiles and nuclear warheads are stored and maintained. And south of the border there is no obvious base to relocate the fleet, said Grant.
“Regarding the deterrent it is a very tricky one and the short answer is there is nowhere ideal. The difficulty insofar as relocation is concerned is not so much where to re-house the nuclear submarines, but where to re-house the nuclear warheads,” he said.
For Johnson the clock is ticking — and maybe for the union. Columnist Neal Ascherson suspects “time is running out for the union as the case grows for a new independence vote.”
Downing Street is now scrambling to shape plans on how to counter the prospect of a Scottish exit from the British union. The strategy includes a billion-pound spending spree of direct investment from London in Scotland’s transport system and infrastructure, circumventing the SNP-run Scottish government.
A so-called union unit is being formed to come up with other ideas and to act as a quick-response war room. Other ideas being considered include having the House of Commons sit periodically in Scotland — as well as Wales or Northern Ireland. British government ministers are also focusing their messaging on how the SNP is providing no realistic plans on what independence would mean for Scottish pensions, the border with England and Scotland’s economy.
The problem for English Conservatives is that they are not liked north of the border — and have not been since the days of Margaret Thatcher, who, even sympathetic biographers admit, had no ear for Scottish sensitivities.