Under pressure over increased support for Scottish independence and with a second referendum likely, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has toured Scotland and praised Britain’s rapid vaccine development in hopes of turning the tide in favor of the pro – union movement. But most of the shots, including Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon, paralyzed him to make the trip at all in a sign that he may have already lost the union vote.
When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson toured Scotland on 28 January, visiting a series of Covid-19 vaccine sites, he had a clear agenda in mind: he reminded Scotland that it had a special place in Britain.
His whistle blew in a test center in Glasgow where “samples from all over the country” were coming, he said, adding that it was “the British Army” that had helped set up a vaccination site before focusing on a vaccine factory that would produce 60 million doses. “for the whole country”.
In exchange for high praise for Scotland’s contribution to Britain’s collective response to the pandemic, Johnson was criticized by the Scottish media for struggling to understand why he had bothered to show up at all.
Critics said his trip was bad as many shots remained under Covid restrictions, while Scotland’s Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was “not ecstatic” about the visit, suggesting Johnson’s trip breaks the deadlock.
“People like me and Boris Johnson have to be at work for reasons that people understand, but we do not have to travel across the UK. We have an obligation to lead by example, says Sturgeon.
Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party said the visit was a sign of a “Prime Minister in a panic”.
Johnson is facing pressure from his government to curb the independence movement and has taken the success of Britain’s vaccine program to drive home the benefits of staying in Britain.
Even when faced with a number of questions about the growing pressure for Scottish independence, the British Prime Minister first tried to steer his answers towards unity and the success of Britain’s collective pandemic response.
“I think you can see the fantastic contribution from researchers from Scotland, Scottish people to the national effort and I do not want to break it down,” he said of the UK’s vaccine program.
When directly pressured, however, he emphatically rejected a second referendum on independence, saying he considered it “completely irrelevant” in the midst of a health crisis.
“I do not see the benefit of getting lost in meaningless constitutional crime when, after all, we had a referendum not so long ago,” he said of the 2014 referendum in which Scotland chose to remain in Britain with a narrow 55 percent.
But in 2021, relations between the two neighbors have become strained. Brexit, which saw Britain vote to leave the EU, and the pandemic crisis have tipped the balance against the independence camp.
“Scotland has always been pro-European,” Alistair Clark, a policy reader at Newcastle University, told FRANCE 24. “Throughout the Brexit debate, Scotland’s wishes were largely ignored and shots have been taken.”
Although Scotland has its own government in Edinburgh that allows significant powers, from public health to education, it is still part of Britain under which London still bends its influence. Sturgeon hopes that a strong performance by her SNP party in the May election will give her a mandate for a second time in independence.
So far, more than 20 votes in a row indicate that she is well on her way.
“Of course there is uncertainty when the referendum on independence can be held, but these poll figures speak when they take place against the uncertainty of the pandemic and the new regime that is taking root with Brexit,” Clark said.
Pandemic response campaign
Johnson’s appeal to keep the union intact and the many tributes to Britain’s joint efforts to combat the pandemic are unlikely to lead the public.
The United Kingdom has recorded Europe’s worst death toll from the coronavirus, with a total of over 103,000 deaths. Even with similarly gloomy infections and mortality, the contrasting leadership styles of Johnson and Sturgeon have left their mark, says Dr Clark, with surveys showing that Scottish voters believe Sturgeon has handled the crisis better.
“[Sturgeon] has chaired most of the Covid intelligence services over the past year and has done so in a serious way, in contrast to Johnson who is really struggling with these reviews. It feeds into the issue of competence, he said.
Sturgeon is already in campaign mode ahead of the parliamentary elections in May. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has published an 11-point “roadmap for a referendum” as well as a newly established “independent working group”.
Some European commentators saw Sturgeon’s decision on Friday to defy the British government by agreeing to publish vaccine data as a provocative and preventive demonstration of Scotland’s independence.
The EU is facing a huge shortage of vaccines and is demanding access to AstraZeneca vaccines made in the UK. Johnson has refused to be drawn into the EU’s escalating line of major drugs and gave no indication that he would be willing to cooperate with Brussels.
For Johnson’s part, he will have a tougher task in convincing the Scots to stay in Britain if he continues to campaign against Britain’s pandemic response, especially if the EU succeeds in dragging Britain to a vaccine dispute.
Following the protracted and messy divorce with the EU, Johnson will want to avoid putting Britain in another messy split with Scotland, especially when the ties that bind are 300 years old.
While the Scots can get a second shot at independence, they must first get approval from the British government to make a referendum legal and, as Johnson has repeatedly pointed out, he has no intention of doing so.
Seemingly unaffected by reports his tour of Scotland was a public relations failure, Johnson is likely to continue to hold on to his pitch of an economically stronger post-pandemic and post-Brexit UK that includes Scotland.
“I think what people want to see is that we bounce stronger together,” Johnson said.