Under pressure over surging support for Scottish independence and with a second referendum looking likely, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been touring Scotland praising the UK’s rapid vaccine rollout in the hopes of turning the tide in favour of the pro-Union movement. But most Scots, including first minister Nicola Sturgeon, lambasted him for making the trip at all in a sign he may have already lost the union vote.
As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson toured Scotland on January 28 where he visited a series of Covid-19 vaccine sites, he had a clear agenda in mind: reminding Scotland it had a special place within the UK.
His whistle-stop tour took in a Glasgow testing centre where samples were coming “from across the whole country”, he said, adding that it was “the British army” which had helped set up a vaccination site before turning his focus on to a vaccine factory that would produce 60 million doses “for the whole country”.
In return for heaping praise on Scotland’s contributions to the UK’s collective response to the pandemic, Johnson was criticised by the Scottish media who struggled to understand why he had bothered to show up at all.
Critics said his trip was ill-timed given many Scots remained under Covid restrictions, while Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said she was “not ecstatic” by the visit, suggesting Johnson’s trip breached lockdown rules.
“People like me and Boris Johnson have to be in work for reasons people understand, but we don’t have to travel across the UK. We have a duty to lead by example,” said Sturgeon.
Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party said the visit was a sign of a “prime minister in panic”.
Facing pressure from his government at home to dampen the pro-independence movement, Johnson has seized on the success of the UK’s vaccine programme to drive home to the Scottish the benefits of remaining in the United Kingdom.
Even as he faced a barrage of questions on the growing pressure for Scottish independence, the British PM tried to steer his responses back to unity first and the success of the UK’s collective pandemic response.
“I think you can see the amazing contribution of Scotland scientists, Scottish people to the national effort and I don’t want to break that up,” he said of the UK’s vaccine programme.
When pressed directly, however, he emphatically rejected calls for a second referendum on independence saying he considered it “completely irrelevant” in the midst of a health crisis.
“I don’t see the advantage of getting lost in pointless constitutional wrangling when, after all, we had a referendum not so very long ago,” he said about the 2014 vote in which Scotland chose to remain in the United Kingdom by a slim 55 percent.
But in 2021, relations have become strained between the two neighbours. Brexit, which saw Britain vote to leave the EU, and the pandemic crisis have tipped the balance towards the independence camp.
“Scotland has always been pro-European,” Dr Alistair Clark, a reader in politics at Newcastle University told FRANCE 24. “Throughout the whole Brexit debate Scotland’s wishes were seen as largely ignored and Scots have noted this.”
Although Scotland has its own government in Edinburgh that allows for considerable powers, from public health to education, it remains part of the UK under which London still flexes its influence. Sturgeon is hoping that a strong performance by her SNP party in May elections will give her the mandate for a second go at independence.
So far, more than 20 polls in a row suggest she’s well on her way.
“Sure there is uncertainty whenever the independence referendum might be held, but these poll figures are telling as they’re taking place against the uncertainty of the pandemic and the new regime that is taking root with Brexit,” Dr Clark said.
Campaigning on pandemic response
Johnson’s appeal to keep the union intact and the many plaudits for Britain's joint efforts in battling the pandemic are unlikely to sway public opinion.
The UK has logged Europe’s worst death toll from the coronavirus, with an overall tally of more than 103,000 deaths. Even with similarly grim infection and mortality rates, the contrasting leadership styles of Johnson and Sturgeon have left their mark, said Dr Clark, with polls showing Scottish voters believe Sturgeon has better managed the crisis.
“[Sturgeon] has chaired most of the Covid briefings in the last year and done so in a serious manner, which contrasts with Johnson who really struggles with these briefings. It feeds into the issue of competence,” he said.
Sturgeon is already in campaign mode ahead of those parliamentary elections in May. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has published an 11-point “roadmap to a referendum” as well as a newly established “independence taskforce”.
Some European commentators saw Sturgeon's decision on Friday to defy the British government by agreeing to publish vaccine supply data as a provocative and preemptive demonstration of Scotland’s independence.
The EU is facing a massive shortfall in vaccines and is demanding access to AstraZeneca vaccines manufactured in the UK. Johnson has refused to be drawn into the EU’s escalating row with big pharma and gave no indication he would be willing to cooperate with Brussels.
For Johnson’s part, he will have a tougher task convincing the Scots to stay inside the UK if he continues to campaign on the UK’s pandemic response, especially if the EU succeeds in dragging the UK into a dispute over vaccine supplies.
After the protracted and messy divorce with the EU, Johnson will want to avoid embroiling the UK in another messy split with Scotland, especially when the ties that bind are 300 years old.
While the Scottish may get a second shot at independence, they would first have to gain approval from the UK government to make a referendum legal and, as Johnson has repeatedly indicated, he has no intention of doing so.
Seemingly unflummoxed by reports his tour of Scotland was a public relations failure, Johnson is likely to carry on sticking to his pitch of an economically stronger post-pandemic and post-Brexit Britain that includes Scotland.
“I think what people want to see is us bouncing back more strongly together,” Johnson said.