By Andrew MacAskill
HELENSBURGH, Scotland (Reuters) – James Henderson has spent most of his life fiercely opposed to Scottish independence. Now, reluctantly he is backing it.
The 71-year-old former marine engineer voted against Scotland leaving the United Kingdom 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 would be better off independent.
Henderson lives in Helensburgh, a coastal town on the Firth of Clyde, which is an unlikely home for Scottish nationalists.
The area has one of the highest levels of English residents living in Scotland, and everyone knows someone who works at the nearby Faslane nuclear submarine base, a symbol of the shared bonds that bind the United Kingdom.
The base is the second-largest single site employer in Scotland and red-white-and-blue union jack flags fly in some residents’ gardens. If Scotland wins independence and the nationalists fulfil a promise to remove the submarines from its waters, thousands of jobs are at risk.
But Scottish nationalism is rising in places like this and other former unionist strongholds, a phenomenon which could tip the scales in favour of the break-up of the centuries-old political union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
“Independence is probably inevitable now – I don’t mean to sound dramatic,” Henderson said. “I just feel like we are drifting apart and Scotland can run itself better.”
The coronavirus pandemic is straining the bonds that bind together the United Kingdom. In Scotland, where this is most visible, 54% of people now favour independence, according a recent poll, driven by a perception that Scotland’s semi-autonomous government has handled the coronavirus outbreak better than the United Kingdom government.
Under the United Kingdom’s devolved system agreed towards the end of the last century, each country has responsibility for matters such as health, while the government in London is responsible for handling the broader economy and foreign policy.
All the nations of the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – went into lockdown at roughly the same time. But they have emerged at different speeds, a divergence that reflects concerns that Johnson’s government, having gone into lockdown too late, is exiting prematurely.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and head of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, has been widely praised for her handling of the crisis, including among those who voted to remain part of the United Kingdom in the 2014 independence referendum.
Sturgeon has won plaudits for her honesty, grasp of detail and adopting a more cautious approach to lifting lockdown restrictions. Scotland has not recorded any deaths from people who tested positive for coronavirus in the last week. By contrast, England has been reporting more than a dozen deaths a day.
John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said for the first time nationalists are favourites to win independence. Curtice said the crisis has demonstrated to Scots that their government can chart its own course.
“Coronavirus has put the Scottish government front and centre in the lives of people,” he said. It has “eroded that bit further the support for the union”.
In Northern Ireland, where politicians wishing to reunite with Ireland share power with pro-British unionists, the devolved government’s plan to lift lockdown also more closely resembled the Republic of Ireland’s more cautious approach and diverged from that of Johnson’s government.
Analysts say the pandemic has allowed nationalists Sinn Fein to advance the cause of Irish unity by calling for an all-island policy.
In Scotland, the independence cause has also been bolstered by Britain’s departure from the European Union. Continued membership of the bloc was a key promise of the unionist camp in the 2014 referendum and Scots voted overhwelmingly to remain in the Brexit referendum two years later.
Many feel they are being dragged out by a Conservative government that they did not vote for and which they see as patronising and arrogant. Johnson is particularly disliked.
With all that, the nationalists are now on course to win a majority in next year’s Scottish parliament elections, according to opinion polls.
If this happens, they will claim the political and moral right to hold another referendum.
They are even confident they will take Dumbarton, which includes Helensburgh and other villages around the nuclear base. The seat is only one of seven that the nationalists have never had anyone directly elected since the creation of the Scottish parliament in 1999.
Alasdair Jamison, a local SNP leader, said if they win the seat it would show there is a realignment taking place in Scottish politics.
“If support for nationalism is growing here then it must be growing everywhere,” he said.
The Labour incumbent, Jackie Baillie, only hung on to her seat by 109 votes at the last election in 2016.
Still, independence is neither imminent nor inevitable. To hold another referendum legally, Scotland needs the permission of the British parliament.
Johnson, who was heckled on a visit to Scotland on Thursday to shore up support for the union, has said the 2014 referendum was decisive and should be respected. But if the nationalists win a majority this will set up a constitutional clash over the right to call another referendum.
Over the longer-term, the biggest problem for the independence movement may be the performance of the economy. Scotland’s economic growth rate is about half that of the UK average and unemployment is higher.
Baillie, who acknowledges her seat is vulnerable, said the economic consequences of the pandemic may persuade voters now to avoid more constitutional upheaval.
“Changing the constitution will not put bread on the table. It doesn’t put shoes on kids’ feet. They may want it now. But priorities change,” she said.
But Andrew Nisbet, a local leader in Helensburgh’s campaign to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom six years ago, said the nationalist movement now appears unstoppable.
“Sadly, I fear the union is unlikely to survive.”
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin. Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Angus MacSwan)