HELENSBURGH, Scotland (Reuters) – James Henderson has spent most of his life strongly opposed to Scottish independence. Now, he reluctantly supports it.
The 71-year-old former marine engineer voted against Scotland to leave Britain during the last independence referendum in 2014. But after Brexit, the election of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the coronavirus pandemic, he now believes Scotland will be better off on its own.
Henderson lives in Helensburgh, a coastal city in the Firth of Clyde, which is home to Scottish nationalists.
This area has one of the highest levels of British population living in Scotland, and everyone knows someone who works at the nearby Faslane nuclear submarine base, a symbol of the common bond that binds England.
The base is the second largest single site provider company in Scotland and the red-white-blue union jack flag flying in several community gardens. If Scotland wins independence and the nationalists fulfill the promise to move the submarine from its waters, thousands of jobs are at risk.
But Scottish nationalism was increasing in places like this and other former trade union strongholds, a phenomenon that could give a point on the scale supporting the destruction of centuries of political unity between Scotland and the whole of England.
“Independence may be inevitable now – I don’t mean to sound dramatic,” Henderson said. “I just feel like we’re separated and Scotland can run better.”
The corona virus pandemic is straining ties that bind Great Britain. In Scotland, where this is most visible, 54% of people now support independence, according to a recent poll, driven by the perception that Scotland’s semi-autonomous government has handled the coronavirus outbreak better than the British government.
Under the British devolution system agreed towards towards the end of the last century, each country has responsibility for matters such as health, while the government in London is responsible for dealing with the wider economy and foreign policy.
All countries in the UK – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – were locked at almost the same time. But they have emerged at different speeds, a difference that reflects fears that the Johnson government, after locking up too late, exits prematurely.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and chair of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, has been widely praised for handling the crisis, including among those who chose to remain part of Britain in the 2014 independence referendum.
Sturgeon has won praise for his honesty, detailed understanding and adopted a more cautious approach to lifting lock restrictions. Scotland has not recorded the death of a person who tested positive for the corona virus in the past week. In contrast, Britain has reported more than a dozen deaths a day.
John Curtice, a political professor at Strathclyde University, said for the first time nationalists were favorites to win independence. Curtice said the crisis had shown the Scottish people that their government could determine its own direction.
“Coronavirus has put the Scottish government at the center and center of community life,” he said. This has “eroded a bit further in support of the union”.
In Northern Ireland, where politicians who want to reunite with Ireland share power with pro-British trade unions, the government plan delegated to remove the lock is also more like the Republic of Ireland’s more cautious and deviant approach from the Johnson government.
Analysts say the pandemic is allowing the Sinn Fein nationalists to advance the unity of Ireland by calling for the policy of all the islands.
In Scotland, the goal of independence has also been supported by Britain’s departure from the European Union. Sustained bloc membership is a key promise of the trade union strongholds in the 2014 referendum and the Scots chose very carefully to remain in the Brexit referendum two years later.
Many felt dragged down by a Conservative government they did not elect and regarded as arrogant and arrogant. Johnson is very unpopular.
With all that, nationalists are now on track to win a majority in Scottish parliamentary elections next year, according to the poll.
If this happens, they will claim political and moral rights to hold another referendum.
They even believed they would take Dumbarton, including Helensburgh and other villages around the nuclear base. That seat is only one of seven that nationalists have never had anyone directly elected to since the formation of the Scottish parliament in 1999.
Alasdair Jamison, a local SNP leader, said if they won the seat it would indicate there was an alignment in Scottish politics.
“If support for nationalism grows here, then it must grow everywhere,” he said.
Labor incumbent, Jackie Baillie, only held his chair with 109 votes in the last election in 2016.
Even so, independence is not a close or inevitable thing. To hold another referendum legally, Scotland needs permission from the British parliament.
Johnson, who was insulted on a visit to Scotland on Thursday to prop up support for the union, said the 2014 referendum was decisive and must be respected. But if the nationalists win a majority, this will create a constitutional conflict over the right to call another referendum.
In the long run, the biggest problem for the independence movement might be economic performance. Scotland’s economic growth rate is around half of the UK average and unemployment is higher.
Baillie, who acknowledged his position was vulnerable, said the economic consequences of the pandemic could persuade current voters to avoid more constitutional upheaval.
“Changing the constitution will not make bread on the table. It does not put shoes on children’s feet. They might want it now. But priorities have changed, “he said.
But Andrew Nisbet, a local leader in Helensburgh’s campaign to guard Scotland in Britain six years ago, said the nationalist movement now seemed unstoppable.
“Sadly, I’m afraid that union might not last.”
Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin. Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Angus MacSwan
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