Scotland's handling of virus boosts support for independence

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A torn Scottish Saltire flag hangs over the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland, Friday, Aug, 21, 2020. The handling of the coronavirus pandemic by Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has drawn praise, in contrast to the sometimes-chaotic approach of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. That has catapulted the idea of Scottish independence from the U.K. back up the political agenda. (AP Photo/David Cheskin)

EDINBURGH – There is wide agreement that Britain’s devastating coronavirus outbreak has been met by strong, effective political leadership. Just not from Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

While Johnson has often seemed to flounder and flip-flop his way through the biggest national crisis in decades, Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has won praise for her sober, straight-talking response.

The gulf between the neat, concise Sturgeon and the rumpled, rambling Johnson has catapulted the idea of Scottish independence from the United Kingdom — the long-held dream of Sturgeon’s nationalist government — back up the political agenda.

The issue appeared settled when Scottish voters rejected secession by 55%-45% in a 2014 referendum. But after Brexit and COVID-19, “there are signs that the anchors of the union are beginning to shift,” said Tom Devine, emeritus professor of history at the University of Edinburgh.

Devine said Sturgeon’s government “has demonstrated it can manage the greatest catastrophe since World War II. And that suggests to some people who might have been on the edge of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ (for independence) that they could actually run a normal government.”

Recent opinion polls support that view.

“For the first time in Scottish polling history, we have supporters of independence outnumbering opponents over an extended period," said John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde.

One long-simmering reason is Britain’s departure from the European Union. Brexit is resented by many in Scotland, which voted strongly in 2016 to remain in the bloc. The U.K. officially left the EU on Jan. 31, although the economic break — and potential shock, if a trade deal isn’t struck between the two sides — won't occur until the end of 2020.