Coronavirus and Scotland: does cataclysm fuel nationalism?
Illustration by Nicola March

Scottish Independence is not a new topic. It has been bubbling away since 2007, when the Scottish National Party (SNP) became the largest party in Holyrood, and peaked with the notable referendum in 2014 that was lost by some 400,000 votes. However, there is a new variable — the coronavirus sweeping the planet.

While most news is focused on the short term and the catastrophic death tolls, it is important to consider the effect this phenomenon could have on Scottish nationalism. A successful referendum would be a huge shakeup to the United Kingdom, and have consequences that could long outlast the infection toll.  The economic uncertainty of independence would extend the recession caused by the virus. Additionally, the shared identity of Scots could be altered and consolidated (eg. by educational policy) under a government seeking to establish the validity of a newly independent Scotland to the world. There is a lot to be learned from history and how cataclysmic events, like World War One, influenced the downfall of empires – particularly given that a similar fate could be brought upon the United Kingdom in the aftermath of a successful Scottish independence referendum.

History has a tendency to repeat itself, and there are clear parallels between the internationally disruptive events of WWI and the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of their impacts on secessionist nationalism. Following WWI, four major empires collapsed: the Russian Empire in 1817, the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires in 1918 and the Ottoman Empire in 1922. There is a particular possibility that COVID-19 could promote similar sentiments in the coming months and years.

Preventable loss of lives is a key factor in  turning the public against the status quo, and, in turn, bolstering nationalism. Widespread death stimulated the perception that those in charge were negligent, and was resultantly a reason for the fall of the Ottoman Empire. As the UK sits high up in the international coronavirus death tolls, Scots are losing faith in their Westminster leaders and this could catalyse independence. This was certainly the case in the Ottoman Empire, as nearly half a million lost their lives in WWI. While the coronavirus death toll in the UK is fortunately significantly less catastrophic, we are still surrounded by worrying statistics that give the impression that we are ‘losing’ the fight against COVID-19. Potentially, this could push Scots to seek a drastically different leadership of the country by secession from the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister’s recent visit to Scotland certainly suggests acknowledgement of  the union being under threat.

As the UK sits fairly high up in the international coronavirus death tolls, Scots are losing faith in their Westminster leaders

Moreover, crises exacerbate pre-existing divisions and shift the mood towards independence. The SNP has tried to develop the archetype of a Scot as someone with different community values to the English.  Additionally, some surveys suggest that Scots believe the future is bright while the English are more inclined to be nostalgic for what has already been. This resulting nuanced nationalist identity proves even more effective in times of crisis as countries turn inwards and seek to protect their own.

Differences seem to outweigh similarities between countries and identities during trying times; for instance, the weakening of the international system of governance by the 2008 global financial crisis. During the coronavirus troubles, the EU did not respond to Italy’s calls for help, which highlights a pattern of countries not supporting each other during cataclysmic events. A trend of self help and ‘pulling up the drawbridges’ could foster momentum for Scottish independence. Scotland’s lack of influence in Westminster may bolster independence when precarious decisions have to be made on Rishi Sunak’s racked up debt.

Short term suggestions speculate that “Indyref2” will not happen, as public health is the priority and coronavirus mitigates the momentum that the movement has built. This assumption fails to account for how Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has handled the crisis to suit her own political ends. She denounced Boris Johnson’s lockdown easing measures, and then adopted similar policies in the following weeks. This has also been done somewhat covertly; for instance, her changing the name of the prime minister’s ‘bubbles’ to ‘extended household groups’ broadly enacts the same rules as England, but subtly sets Scotland’s approach apart. This makes little sense regarding controlling the spread of COVID-19 in a climate where misinformation is rife and it is difficult to know which policy applies at a given time. Logically, cooperation with Westminster in policy naming, at the very least, would make rules clearer to citizens. Therefore, it can be asserted that the First Minister is instead prioritising the display of Scotland’s differences to the rest of the UK, in not having a uniform policy name. In part, she is choosing to politicise this health crisis, resultantly spreading more confusion over lockdown rules.

Despite maintaining that this is an apolitical decision, the First Minister’s suggestions to close the English border are a further example of the flawed Scottish response to the crisis. The public health benefit would be negligible, given that Scots can currently travel abroad to some 50 countries without quarantining on return which undermines the utility of restrictions on English travel in. Yet again, this stokes division and could seriously harm Scotland’s crucial tourism industry by making foreigners feel unwelcome. England is a key trading partner of Scotland, so even speculation could stoke separationist attitudes that could harm supply chains and further promote independence.

[Nicola Sturgeon] is choosing to politicise this health crisis

On the other hand, the differences between Sturgeon’s and Johnson’s treatment of this public health crisis may highlight the extent of Scotland’s devolved powers. Granted in 1997 with the creation of the Scottish Parliament, this developed Scotland’s deep reliance on Westminster funding. Few people who newly support independence due to Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic seem aware that the funding for popular schemes, such as the furlough, comes entirely from Westminster, which indicates that the spread of nationalism may be a matter of the heart, not the head at this time. Independence has always been an emotive issue, while the economic uncertainty that surrounds it has been a key counter argument. In the 2014 referendum, the claim that oil money would sustain the nation proved false as of the last 21 years Scotland had a budget deficit for 20. Despite the difficulty in proving the economic case for Scottish independence, the loss of life and great upheaval caused by the calamitous coronavirus may be enough to sway the emotions of voters towards independence.

The Prime Minister has long been criticised for being slow to enact a lockdown on the United Kingdom, and for continuing to support Dominic Cummings who blatantly flaunted the rules. These errors have presented the Scottish First Minister in a more appealing light – regardless of her own handling. Recent polls support this conclusion, with 78% of Scots believing that Holyrood has done a good job in its treatment of the pandemic and only 34% saying the same for Westminster. This is not necessarily a division large enough to cause independence alone, but certainly is a repeat of the 2016 EU referendum in which Scots conclusively voted in favour of Remain but had little influence on the overall result, which led many to support Scottish independence. This suggests that the historical trend of major events fuelling nationalist divisions continues.

If we examine another of the empires that fell as a result of WW1, the Russian, then there is further common ground with the spread of nationalism due to crises. During a crisis, there is an amplified focus on the nation’s leader. Resultantly, the public’s reaction to the event, be it coronavirus or heavy casualties in WW1, hinges on how those in power handle the situation. Tsar Nicholas II was already a poor leader compared to his ancestors, but he decided to lead the weakening Russian empire and hence took the fall for outdated military strategy. Recently, there has been a similar increased focus on the leader while the UK was essentially ruled by a ‘pentocracy’. It was abundantly clear when Boris Johnson failed as a leader in his dithering between herd immunity and a delayed lockdown. By this comparison, we can see that poor top -down leadership in response to a catastrophic event turns the public against the establishment in its current form and could, in our present situation, encourage Scottish independence.

Tsar Nicholas II … took the fall for outdated military strategy. Recently, there has been a similar increased focus on the leader

Public health has virtually always been a political matter, and this rings true in the era of coronavirus nationalism. Quarantining has existed since the 14th century as an effort to contain plagues. Historically, this bred more international cooperation to enact the policy, but now appears to be creating nationalist echo-chambers as citizens compare one another’s response to the virus. Patriotic propaganda surrounding the coronavirus is even beginning to appear with China presenting itself as a benevolent power, through supporting Italy with PPE, to replace a disorganised USA in the world order. This proves that attempting political gain from crises is not limited to the SNP. The World Health Organisation, a key provider of advice and standard -setter during COVID- 19, is simply another iteration of the highly political Health Organisation of the League of Nations. Other countries are using this crucial organisation for political point- scoring, particularly the populist USA that is attempting to leave. These behaviours illustrate that health crises are political opportunities and that other countries are becoming more insular, a trend reflected in Scotland, a country increasingly tempted by independence.

The ‘creation myth’ of a country is an indispensable tool of nationalism. The perception of Scottish superiority in dealing with coronavirus could well be used as a collective memory of one of Scotland’s first national successes in the face of adversity. The belief that Scotland was able to thrive ‘going it alone’ in a public health crisis could bring citizens together and propagate the notion that the nation would deal well with any other future troubles even without Westminster. This nationalist creation myth would function in the same way that Prussia and Austria’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars were used by later generations to develop the concept of a German folk imagined community before the country’s unification in 1871.

Currently, it is pivotal that we are cautious and abide by the relevant regional lockdown rules. Only time will tell as the dust of coronavirus settles, and we see the political trace left on Scotland from this unprecedented epoch.