How Brexit and Covid have made the future of the UK the next big debate: Interview with Matthew Elliott

How Brexit and Covid have made the future of the UK the next big debate: Interview with Matthew Elliott

Catherine Neilan

19:10 14th January 2021

Could Scotland gain independence from the United Kingdom? It's a question that Brexit had already brought back into public debate, despite the previous acknowledgement that 2014's referendum was a once-in-a-generation opportunity for people to have their say.

It is arguably one of the main reasons that Theresa May stuck to her guns through the darkest days of parliamentary paralysis and refused a second Brexit referendum: the hypocrisy of allowing a rerun, even if it meant an end to meaningful votes, could not have been ignored.

Under Boris Johnson, however, Scotland has become the elephant in Number 10 once more. The blustering old Etonian Prime Minister is not well liked north of the border and throughout the Covid crisis polls have consistently shown a majority in favour, not just of a second referendum but of independence.

Nicola Sturgeon's handling of the pandemic has been favourably compared with that of the Westminster government. The jury might still be out on whether that's objectively true. After all, many of the same scandals that have beset Boris and co - care homes, the exams crisis, senior figures breaking lockdown rules - have been shared by Sturgeon. But her calm, no-nonsense response has seen the SNP leader's support grow.

A poll last autumn found that 74 per cent of Scottish voters believed the First Minister had handled the crisis well, compared with just 19 per cent who backed the PM.

Successive polls meanwhile have shown a majority in favour of independence, including today's poll showing a record high of 57 per cent.

It is not just the current Westminster government's competence that has been shown up during the pandemic, but also the extent to which powers are already devolved. With education, healthcare and so on already being handled at a national level, often it has left the UK Government sounding more like the Government of England.

Johnson and co are pushing back against the prospect of a referendum, and have sent some of their more popular ministers to try and rally support for the union. But if Holyrood elections, due on May 6, yield an expected increased majority for the SNP, Sturgeon has already hinted that she will interpret this as a mandate to press for another referendum, regardless of what happens in Westminster.

If one goes ahead without the approval of Downing Street it will have no legal underpinning but the idea that the so-called people's government could ignore the voice of the people north of Berwick will test the union just as much.

In addition, the debate has shifted over the last seven years. The economic arguments that secured a 55-45 win for remaining in the UK could suffer the same fate as so-called 'Project Fear' during the EU referendum. On top of that, the prospect of rejoining the bloc - something which could be sweetened by Brussels - will muddy the predictions of gloom and bankruptcy.

But it is not Scotland's independence alone that should be keeping Johnson up at night. Although it may be the first, we could find the nations breaking away like dominoes. WIth the row over the movement of goods across the Irish Sea intensifying since the end of transition, questions about the future of Northern Ireland are also being asked.

During the debate on the 11th-hour Brexit deal, which MPs were recalled to vote for on December 30, SDLP MP Colum Eastwood warned it would lead to the reunification of Ireland.

"My firm view now is that the United Kingdom is coming to an end," he told the Commons. "I say this in the full understanding that many in my community will see the break-up of the union as a tragedy, and I fully respect that position."

His position was not one of "thoughtless triumphalism" but a call for "solemn responsibility" to manage the coming period.

WIth Northern Ireland marking its centenary this year, tensions fuelled by post-Brexit barriers with Britain could lead to renewed debate about the nation's place in the world. Much will depend on whether the trading "teething problems" are ironed out, as Michael Gove has promised. Scotland could well prove a test case for the rest of the nations.

This week, I speak to Vote Leave chief executive Matthew Elliott who sets out why he believes Scottish independence will be the big political debate of 2021 - and why the polarisation we have seen in our civic discourse since 2016 needn't have happened.

Listen to the interview below.

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Tags: Brexit Boris Johnson Coronavirus Nicola Sturgeon Democracy Referendum Podcast