OVER the last few weeks, Scotland has arguably “felt” more like its own self-governing country than at any time since at least 1746. It’s not that the constitutional dispensation has changed – the Scottish Government has carried on making decisions within its own sphere of responsibility, just as it has since devolution began in 1999.
But because decisions about lockdown have had a huge impact on the day-to-day lives of every person in Scotland, and because they’ve differed sharply from the choices made by the UK Government for England, the public have sat up and truly taken notice of self-government in an unprecedented way.
Lockdown has also been a masterclass on the demarcation of responsibilities between the Scottish and UK Governments. Ordinary people have noticed and discussed the impact of the Scottish Government’s powerlessness to extend its more cautious approach to policy areas under London’s control. For example, Scotland’s efforts to suppress the virus could only take us so far as long as the UK Government refused to introduce border controls.
Scotland’s ability to maintain lockdown longer than England had severe limitations if the UK Government was going to refuse to maintain furlough payments. The debate over whether the Scottish Parliament should have more powers, which has hitherto been vague and abstract for most people, is now a concrete discussion about our own government’s ability to keep its citizens safe.
READ MORE: Stunning new poll finds Scots feel safer when FM has powers to tackle virus
So in my new crowdfunded Scot Goes Pop/Panelbase poll, I didn’t ask a generic question about whether it would be really lovely if Holyrood had more powers. I instead asked specifically whether respondents thought the people of Scotland would be “more safe or less safe” if the UK Government’s decision-making powers relating to the Scottish lockdown were transferred to the Scottish Government.
The examples I gave of relevant powers were airport checks and border controls. As was the case with so many of the previous questions in this poll, the results were emphatic – 58% of respondents said the public would be “more safe” if Nicola Sturgeon’s Government had total control over the lockdown, and only 21% said “less safe”.
If that 3-1 margin sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s strikingly similar to the margins by which respondents said they were now “less convinced” that Scotland is safer if it remains part of the UK, and “more confident” that Scotland will be well-governed if it becomes an independent country.
The pandemic seems to have had a genuinely profound effect upon voters’ instincts on constitutional matters.
Take, for example, people who voted Conservative in December’s General Election. Although a plurality of them hold the view that Scotland would be less safe if Holyrood gains more power, it’s practically a dead heat – 38% say “less safe”, and 35% say “more safe”. It’s hard to understate just how extraordinary a finding that is – Tory voters can usually be relied on to be near-unanimous in their rejection of any form of constitutional progress for Scotland.
A sizeable plurality of people who voted No in the 2014 independence referendum actually believe that Scotland would be more safe with full powers over the lockdown – 46% say “more safe” and 28% say “less safe”. Liberal Democrat voters break the same way, as do Leave voters from the 2016 EU referendum. And, most strikingly of all, an absolute majority of Labour voters (59%) are in the “more safe” camp.
When these figures are taken into account, it’s no surprise at all that the Yes side has found the small amount of extra support required to produce a pro-independence majority. Unless the UK Government can find a way of urgently rebuilding its reputation in Scotland, it’s perfectly conceivable that majority could grow further.