Scotland’s cry of ‘freedom’ that just won’t go away

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Scotland’s cry of ‘freedom’ that just won’t go away

The outcome of an election in Scotland this week might help determine whether the United Kingdom stays together or breaks apart.

By Bevan Shields

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon needs a majority to advance the independence agenda.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon needs a majority to advance the independence agenda. Credit:Getty

Peterhead: In the historic fishing villages dotted along Scotland’s north-east coast, the tide is turning in more ways than one.

The new year has brought real pain for the fishermen working the trawlers that glide in and out of Peterhead harbour, the largest white fish port in Europe. The “sea of opportunity” they were promised under Brexit turned out to be a myth and the industry here is feeling the pinch. On top of a devastating pandemic, exports are down due to extra regulations and mind-boggling paperwork, and European boats are still able to fish in Britain’s waters.

“That is absolutely not what we were told would happen,” says Mark Black, who works on a small trawler. “We have been screwed over and people are really angry.”

Workers clean Lunar Bow, one of the largest trawlers in Peterhead harbour.

Workers clean Lunar Bow, one of the largest trawlers in Peterhead harbour.Credit:Bevan Shields

In a sign of the challenges, UK food exports plunged 75 per cent in January and 40 per cent in February compared to the same time last year.

“This is not a pandemic problem, this is a Brexit problem,” says Scotland Food and Drink chief executive James Withers. “In short, we’ve got a new system of selling to our biggest export market that is now more complex, more costly, and much slower.”

While most of the UK has moved on from Brexit, Scotland is a different story. Just 38 per cent of Scots supported leaving the European Union, and lingering resentment from Remainers – as well as Leavers who feel dudded by the difficult new trading environment – is contributing to a fresh push for independence almost seven years after the failed 2014 referendum.


First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is promising another constitutional poll before the end of 2023 should the Scottish National Party win a majority at Thursday’s Holyrood elections. If she falls short of a majority in her own right – as latest polls suggest – Sturgeon’s less convincing argument is that even a pro-independence parliamentary collection of the SNP and Greens would still constitute a mandate for a fresh vote.

However Westminster would need to green light a new referendum and Boris Johnson – desperate to not go down in history as the Prime Minister who oversaw the break-up of the United Kingdom – is so far refusing.

The pro-Union Tories and Labour say independence would be an economic disaster and distraction from the post-pandemic recovery and serious social problems facing Scotland.

“I think it’s quite insulting when people say that the general public can’t think about more than one issue at the same time,” says Karen Adam, the SNP candidate for the constituency that covers Peterhead and other fishing hamlets.

Scottish National Party candidate Karen Adam in Peterhead. 

Scottish National Party candidate Karen Adam in Peterhead. Credit:Bevan Shields

“Independence can go hand-in-hand in the recovery because at the moment a lot of things we do we are doing with one hand tied behind our back.”

Talking outside Peterhead’s Dolphin Cafe, Adam – a mother of six whose political ambitions were stirred during the 2014 referendum – cites health, education and the economy as key issues for locals this year but says independence is also a big factor behind how people will vote.


“The opposition often say ‘we don’t want to start up this debate again’ but the truth is the debate has never gone away. And won’t.”

Wary of not wanting to be seen as ignorant to bread and butter issues, the SNP has insisted a fresh independence vote would not be held until after the pandemic subsides. The words “independence” and “referendum” don’t even appear on the SNP’s homepage.

Former Tory prime minister Sir John Major has warned Johnson against dismissing Scottish ambitions and urges him to “expose” the reality of a split. Sturgeon wants an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU but has not yet offered clear answers on how long that would take, what a land border with England would look like and how a new currency would work.


Major says unionists have strong arguments to deploy against separation but the weakness is they touch on the wallet, not the soul.

“Scotland needs to know she is cherished as a vital part of the UK,” he recently wrote. “Unfortunately, after Brexit, the Westminster government is poorly placed to argue the value of the Union.

“It has taken the UK out of a union with Europe with the cry of ‘Sovereignty’ and ‘Take Back Control’. Now it must argue against the SNP, which seeks to take Scotland out of the UK for precisely the same reasons.”


Scots voted 55.3 per cent to 44.7 per cent to stick with the UK in 2014 but polls last year picked up a lift in support so big that Downing Street started to panic. Johnson has even ordered the Union Jack to fly above all government buildings at all times rather than just special occasions.

However a lot of that extra backing has dissipated over the past few months, with the six most recent polls showing support for independence ranging somewhere between 39 per cent and 47 per cent.

Sir John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University, suspects the recent fall in support is partly down to voters who last year thought Scotland would have handled the pandemic better as an independent state but have now changed their minds.

Nicola Sturgeon on the campaign trail in Edinburgh.

Nicola Sturgeon on the campaign trail in Edinburgh. Credit:Getty

Curtice is also not convinced Sturgeon will snare an SNP majority on Thursday but says it might make little difference to the independence agenda.

“If she doesn’t get the overall majority her position in her party will be weakened and she will arguably be under even greater pressure to push independence,” he says.

“Sometimes a wounded animal is more dangerous than one which has managed to escape the scars of battle.”


Sturgeon became First Minister in late 2014 after her mentor, Alex Salmond, resigned amid the ashes of the referendum defeat. She is not without detractors but is a relatively popular figure who has won fans from non-SNP voters for her handling of the pandemic.

Glasgow barista Finella Millar says she disagrees with independence but respects Sturgeon personally. “She’s the best woman for the job and there isn’t really anyone else around who could obviously do better,” Millar says. Most customers express similar views whenever talk in the cafe turns to politics, she adds.

The First Minister was locked in a fight for her political survival earlier this year when she faced intense scrutiny over her government’s handling of harassment complaints against Salmond. He was tried over a dozen alleged offences but was found not guilty, including to two counts of rape, in March 2020.

Former first minister Alex Salmond has started his own party but will attract little support.

Former first minister Alex Salmond has started his own party but will attract little support.Credit:Getty

Sturgeon survived an inquiry into the saga but has lost some political skin. In a twist, Salmond has now started his own political outfit, the Alba Party, which is polling in the low single digits.

The SNP needs 65 of Holyrood’s 129 seats to get a majority on Thursday, though the pandemic will delay counting and a final result will not be known until the weekend.

Tony Blair believes a new referendum would fail, partly because voters are fatigued: “I’m not sure that even if the SNP win a majority in the Scottish Parliament that it necessarily means people want to go through the disruption of an independence campaign – I would frankly doubt that,” the former Labour leader told ITV last week.


Eva Murray, Labour’s candidate for one of Glasgow’s nine constituencies and a local councillor, says far more important issues are facing Scotland than its constitutional future. Scotland has worse health and education outcomes than England and one of the world’s highest rates of drug deaths.

“Everyone knows the SNP’s ultimate goal is independence at any cost,” Murray says.

“They are starting to come out with all these policies ... and people are asking ‘you’ve had 14 years to do this, why are you only dealing with this now?’”

Labour candidate Eva Murray in Glasgow’s George Square. 

Labour candidate Eva Murray in Glasgow’s George Square. Credit:Bevan Shields

Can Murray understand why some people want independence? “To be honest, I don’t. I want to make the UK better for everybody. I care just as much about kids in Liverpool and Manchester as I do kids in Glasgow.”

Labour’s new leader is Anas Sarwar, a 38-year-old who became the first Muslim to lead a major party in the UK when he took on the top job just nine weeks ago. The dynamic son of a self-made millionaire has given voters new cause to look at the party but rebuilding to the point of being a serious challenger to the SNP’s dominance will take several years.

“I campaigned in the general election in 2015, after the independence referendum of 2014, and people were chasing you out of their front gardens. It was horrific,” Murray recalls.

“They didn’t want to listen to you, and these are people we had down as Labour [voters] since forever. And in five years we have managed to leave that behind and people are not only now listening but wanting us to give them a reason to vote Labour.”

Labour leader Anas Sarwar poses with four-year-old Ariah Gilliland during a campaign stop in Glasgow.

Labour leader Anas Sarwar poses with four-year-old Ariah Gilliland during a campaign stop in Glasgow.Credit:Getty

An hour away from Glasgow on Scotland’s west coast, Siobhian Brown is hoping to win the seat of Ayr for the SNP for the first time since the Conservatives took it two decades ago. Brown was born in London but moved to Sydney with her brother and Scottish-born parents as a two-year-old in 1975. She moved back to Scotland as a 29-year-old and got involved in local politics after the 2014 referendum.

Brown still feels the disappointment of that loss and predicts unionists will mount a “scare campaign” to defeat any new attempt.

“The strategy is just ‘let’s just scare people about how awful and difficult everything is going to be’,” she says. “They’ve never once really tried to listen to Scotland. There is just total contempt and disrespect.”

SNP candidate Siobhian Brown, who grew up in Australia. 

SNP candidate Siobhian Brown, who grew up in Australia. 

Asked what happens if Boris Johnson continues to resist any new vote, Brown pauses and sighs: “That’s the million-dollar question. But in saying that, I think democratically he will not be able to keep saying no.

“It’s not up to you Boris, it’s not up to me, it’s not up to Nicola. It’s up to the people of Scotland.”

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