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If the independence vote soars in the Scottish Parliament elections on Thursday, the momentum for another referendum on independence will be unstoppable.
It has weathered the conquest and loss of an empire, survived two world wars, and seen more than one deadly pandemic. But now Scotland’s old alliance with England is in poor health itself, and it could take a serious turn for the worse on Thursday.
If Scottish voters go to the polls to elect 129 members of the Scottish Parliament, the issue of independence will not, strictly speaking, be on the ballot.
But as these photos clearly show, Scotland has to contend with an uncertain future. Pressure is mounting for a second referendum to leave the UK and disband a 314-year-old union. If the Scots vote in sufficient numbers for independent parties in Thursday’s elections, the momentum for another referendum could be unstoppable.
The end of the union with England cannot be taken for granted because, as these images show, Scotland is divided on both its future and the prospect of another polarizing vote on independence.
Some are simply tired of the upheavals that have arisen from years of constitutional controversy over an issue that divides families and friends as well as politicians.
Political parties advocating the union argue that, given the economic damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be an indulgence to start another toxic independence debate now, commonly known as “indyref2”.
But Scotland’s policies had diverged from the rest of Britain for much longer. The majority of Scots have voted against the Conservatives in all parliamentary elections for decades but have been unable to prevent the party from taking power in eight of the eleven competitions since 1979.
Brexit has reminded Scots that no matter how they cast their ballots, they make up only 8 percent of the UK population and are easily outvoted by their southern neighbors. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative embrace of Brexit reinforced that message.
In addition to moving on with Brexit, Mr Johnson pushed aside Scottish demands for close ties with the European Union and opted instead for a trade deal with the bloc, which has caused significant disruption.
One of the sectors hardest hit by the UK’s exit from the huge single market of the European Union is the Scottish fishing industry. Many people in fishing communities like Peterhead bucked the trend in Scotland and voted for Brexit, attracted by the promise of a “sea of opportunity” for their industry outside of the European Union’s fishing regulations.
The reality was a mountain of bureaucracy hindering exports to the continent, spoiling catches of mussels and mooring boats in ports.
There are lessons to be learned from this on both sides of the debate. The independence-advocating Scottish National Party, led by Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon, points out the economic damage and says it would try to rejoin the European Union after breaking away from England. In this way, Scotland, like other small nations like Ireland who took this step a century ago, could achieve success in independence.
Your critics say that, on top of Brexit, this would mean more economic misery by destroying the common economic market with England, by far Scotland’s largest trading partner. It would likely also mean a physical trade border between England and Scotland, a border that is difficult to see in some places.
However, the 2016 Brexit referendum showed that appeals to emotions can outperform appeals to the wallet. In Scotland, identity problems have grown within a proud nation that has always maintained a separate, some say superior, legal and educational system.
Ms. Sturgeon’s SNP is seeking a rare overall majority in the Scottish Parliament to justify her call for a second independence referendum. Otherwise, she hopes that votes for other independence parties, especially the Greens, will be enough to support her case.
Opinion poll support for independence peaked at over 50 percent last year, while Ms. Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic looked sure-footed at a time when Mr. Johnson’s looked chaotic.
However, the successful launch of the Covid-19 vaccines, for which Mr Johnson can find credit, coincided with a slight decline in Ms. Sturgeon’s fortune. Also campaigning on Thursday is Alex Salmond, a veteran of the independence cause but now a sworn enemy of Mrs. Sturgeon, who was once his protégé. The two politicians argued over Ms. Sturgeon’s role in a botched investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Salmond.
After months of feuding with her former mentor, Ms. Sturgeon survived a damaging crisis, but Mr. Salmond has formed a new party for independence, Alba.
Domestic issues are also at stake, and after 14 years in power in Edinburgh, the SNP in Scotland has many critics. In televised debates, Ms. Sturgeon was forced to defend her record on everything from educational achievement to Scotland’s poor record for drug deaths.
In the Shetland Islands, some voters feel as far removed from Mrs Sturgeon’s government in Edinburgh as they do from Mr Johnson’s government in London, and there is even talk of the islands choosing independence from Scotland.
The mood is uncertain on the mainland. Difficult questions lie ahead of us for Mrs Sturgeon as to whether an independent Scotland could afford her preferred social policies without the support of England’s taxpayers or her central bank.
These photos are conspicuously missing Mr Johnson, who has stayed away from Scotland and knows that his presence would likely undermine the Conservative Party’s stance on maintaining the union. Mr. Johnson’s cultured upper-class English personality, educated at Britain’s most famous high school, Eton College and Oxford University, is more of interest to Scottish voters.
Despite his absence, there is a lot at stake for Mr. Johnson. Losing Scotland would take away about a third of its land mass and significant international prestige from the UK.
This would likely also include the closure of the Faslane submarine base, which the SNP opposes, believing its location makes the nearby city of Glasgow a military target.
If Mr Johnson lost a Scottish independence referendum, he would likely have to resign and his strategy so far has been simply to turn down calls for one. For a referendum to be legally binding, an agreement would almost certainly need to be reached with London first, and the prime minister can still stonewall for some time.
But whatever the law is, it’s hard to say no indefinitely. And a centuries-old union could pass its greatest test if a majority in Scotland, who voluntarily joined England in 1707, felt it was time to reconsider.