Saltire in the sky – Edinburgh on the eve of a historic election


Photo – Rob Bruce

The row of turreted tents for the international press pack that has appeared on the green sward outside Holyrood looks a little like the set for a medieval jousting competition.  On the afternoon before the election, the swirl of white clouds and blue sky seemed almost to make a saltire in the sky behind it. The saltire, of course, is the oldest flag in Europe and legend has it, appeared to King Angus before the battle of Athelstaneford. You might have to squiggle a bit to see a saltire in this particular photo – but you get the picture: the omens are good.  There won’t be another Scottish election until 2026 and with Brexit and Boris Johnson in the background, if there is no majority for independence parties this time – when will there be?

Instead of lances and charging horses there were arc lights, engineers and satellite dishes. On the scaffold balcony that suspends the TV journalists above the fray, Kirsty Wark prepared her piece to camera, with the iconic upturned boat archtecure of Holyrood behind her.

Spanish, German and other languages could be heard – of course there was not the same kind of press corps as gathered for the  2014 referendum. But a few international media types made it to Edinburgh despite Covid travel restrictions – interested in Scotland’s path to independence mainly perhaps as a route back to EU membership. Brexit has changed the minds of many Scots on the constitutional question – and it has also changed the tune in European capitals where the noises are much more encouraging to Scottish independence seekers than they were in 2014.

Will questions about Johnson’s finances undermine the argument that Scotland’s economic future is best left in Westminster’s hands? 

The media circus has arrived   – but politicians from the UK government have not. The Conservatives have focused in the campaign on the constitutional question, arguing that Scotland’s future on the big questions  – economy, security, immigration, relations with the EU – is best dealt with by Westminster. But no members of the UK government have appeared on the campaign trail to support that message. Boris Johnson didn’t come north despite saying wild horses wouldn’t keep him away.

This  “leave it to the big boys” argument against independence has to be largely a question of trust. Perhaps the main risk for the Conservatives over the “cash for curtains” row will be the impression that the PM is as unreliable with money as he is with promises.  The idea that the PM has his begging bowl out for cash from secret donors to support his household adds to other concerns about money – such as contracts for cronies who didn’t deliver, illicit lobbying at the heart of government etc. Will that damage the argument that Scotland’s economic prosperity is best left in the capable hands of the UK government?

Brexit has reduced the opportunity that union with England once offered

The fallout from Brexit is rumbling in the background although much of the mainstream media seem reluctant to report on it. Scotland has close connections to Ireland and Scots are very aware of the effect on peace and prosperity there.

Highland hospitality and agriculture businesses are struggling without the EU staff they normally rely on. Scotland’s fishing, farming and exporting businesses are all worse off than before. The University sector has lost EU research money and the Erasmus scheme. Scotland’s EU citizens are being forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops which they resent, after building lives and businesses here.

The UK government is ensuring powers to allocate EU grants which were funneled through Holyrood and local councils are repatriated to Westminster, undermining devolution. And Scots have lost the right to live and work in the 27 EU countries – and for a nation with a long tradition of sending educated young people to seek their fortune elsewhere, that rankles.

It is perhaps underrecognized by many in the independence camp just how much support there was for the Union in 1707 among middle-class Scots. That support was based on a hunger for opportunity. But Brexit has reversed that – it means a big reduction in the degree of opportunity that Union with the rest of the UK once offered.

Conditions for Scotland’s independence supporting parties could hardly be better 

The results of the Scottish election are very hard to predict. National polling doesn’t reflect regional variations that will affect marginal constituency seats. And the PR list seat system depends on those. It probably depends on turnout – all pollsters agree that there is a big age factor in support for independence, which peaks in the under 35s at more than two-thirds.

But if the Scottish National Party doesn’t do well this time, the question might be – if not now, when?