When Boris Johnson, as editor of the Spectator, published a poem in 2004 calling the Scots a “verminous race” that deserved “comprehensive extermination,” he might not have imagined it could come back to haunt him 15 years later in his first weeks as British prime minister.
“The Scotch — what a verminous race!” begins Friendly Fire by James Michie. “Canny, pushy, chippy, they’re all over the place / Battening off us with false bonhomie / Polluting our stock, undermining our economy.”
The purportedly satirical poem is no longer available on the Spectator’s Web site, but it is remembered with cold fury by some in the fractured, but relatively conservative market town of Inverurie in Aberdeenshire.
Illustration: Mountain People
“If you’re at the receiving end to being likened to vermin, you’re not impressed,” Rae Jardine, a local Scottish Nationalist party (SNP) member, said with restraint.
Jardine was speaking last week just after an opinion poll showed the first lead for an independent Scotland for more than two years, and shortly before Labour Party shadow chancellor of the exchequer John McDonnell triggered a row by saying his party would allow a second independence referendum north of the border if Labour was in government.
This weekend, thousands of people are expected to join a pro-independence march in Aberdeen.
The city voted 58.6 percent to 41.4 percent against independence in 2014, but some say it is now shifting behind Yes in the face of a no-deal Brexit — opposed by a majority north of the border — and an instinctive antipathy to Johnson.
The prime minister, seen by many as dismissive of Scottish views, was recently described by Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP in the Scottish parliament, as a “recruiting tool” for the independence cause.
Indeed, these twin factors, Johnson and a hard Brexit, could be a tipping point that threatens the very survival of the UK.
In Inverurie, Andrew Jenkins voted No to an independent Scotland in 2014, but is now tilting reluctantly towards Yes.
“I wouldn’t like Brexit and Johnson to change my mind but it may well do,” he said.
If there was a referendum in the next couple of years, “it would certainly be a more difficult choice this time than last time,” he said.
Libbie Allison was too young to take part in the 2014 referendum, but her vote would have been No.
“I felt that Scotland might not be strong enough to be independent,” she said.
Now, aged 19, “I would vote Yes, which is sad because I love Britain. I don’t feel England’s views match with Scotland’s any more. We can still have our shared history and culture, but it feels we have been dragged into something [Brexit] we didn’t vote for,” she said.
Asked what she thought of Johnson, she threw her head back and groaned.
“Oh my God. He has made us look like a joke,” she said.
About 27km northwest of Aberdeen, Inverurie is a quietly prosperous town, cleaving to tradition, resistant to upheaval.
Its population is growing; there are jobs to be had in the dominant industries of agriculture, oil and gas; crime and antisocial behavior are rare; house prices and rents are high, pushed up by demand. The town lies in what has been a Liberal Democrats-Conservative (Tory) marginal constituency.
In the past five years, the public here has gone to the polls six times against the backdrop of an increasingly complex and turbulent political landscape.
After Scottish, UK (twice) and European elections plus two referendums, the broad-brush picture is a place opposed to both independence and Brexit, and seesawing between the Tories and the Nationalists.
In the first of those votes, the 2014 referendum, Aberdeenshire voted 60-40 against independence.
Yet the following year, Alex Salmond, the former leader of the SNP and Scottish first minister, took the Westminster seat of Gordon, in which Inverurie sits.
In the 2016 Brexit referendum, the area voted Remain by 55.5 percent to 44.5 percent. In Scottish parliament elections the same year, it backed the SNP.
Then, in the UK parliament election of 2017, Salmond was turfed out in favor of Colin Clark, a pro-Brexit Conservative whose campaign, some say, was aided by anti-nationalist tactical voting by Liberal Democrat supporters.
Earlier this year, in the EU elections, the SNP took three out of six seats in Scotland, with the Tories, Lib Dems and Brexit party gaining one each.
Labour polled less than 3 percent of the total vote in Aberdeenshire.
“They’re finished round here,” one local said.
Although many people are reticent about discussing politics, the underlying mood is “extremely divisive,” according to a local Conservative official.
One lunchtime customer in the Gordon Highlander pub said he was staunchly pro-Union, but declined to give his name in case he got “a brick through the window” from the nationalists.
Johnson, he warned, was “manna from heaven for [SNP leader and Scottish First Minister] Nicola Sturgeon.”
Clark, the local MP and now a Scottish minister in Johnson’s government, flatly rejected such a notion.
“Boris is a hugely popular figure, full stop, because he connects with the general public. People understand what Boris is on about. The press has tried to paint him as being divisive. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP and the press in Scotland have poured out this bile that he’s somehow anti-Scottish, but people need to judge him as prime minister by what he achieves,” Clark said.
He will “make all of the United Kingdom prosperous,” Clark added.
At least two reports have suggested otherwise.
In 2017, the Centre for Cities think tank concluded that Aberdeen would be the UK city most adversely affected by Brexit, especially a hard exit, mainly due to the impact of increasing costs in the oil sector.
Earlier this year, a report from the Scottish government said 25 percent of Aberdeenshire’s workforce was employed in sectors “most exposed” in a no-deal Brexit, especially farming and fisheries.
Even Clark — generally an enthusiast for Johnsonian positive thinking — conceded that agriculture, especially sheep farming, could be in for “a headache.”
According to last week’s poll, conducted by Lord Ashcroft, 47 percent of respondents in Scotland now want another independence referendum, with 45 percent disagreeing.
If a second poll was held, 46 percent would vote Yes to independence, and 43 percent No — a 52-48 percent majority if “don’t know” and “won’t vote” are excluded.
The shift from 2014 is small, but only a modest movement would be needed to get Yes over the line.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and the UK’s foremost poll analyst, said the Ashcroft survey was “of a piece” with four other Scottish opinion polls conducted earlier this year.
“It is further evidence that seemingly the race has narrowed. The figures reflect exactly what voters said they would do if Boris Johnson became prime minister and if the UK crashed out of Europe. One of those things has happened, and the other is coming into view,” Curtice said.
Another analyst, Michael Keating, chair in Scottish politics at Aberdeen University, said the country “may be approaching a tipping point. Certainly, the union is looking a lot weaker than it was coming out of the 2014 referendum.”
As with the Leave-Remain balance across the UK, demographics may be a factor.
Some say older voters tend to be more pro-union; young people coming into the electorate tend to be more open to independence.
In addition, in Scotland in 2014, 16-year-olds were permitted to vote.
Member of Scottish Parliament for Aberdeenshire East Gillian Martin of the SNP said she had detected a shift in mood among her constituents.
“Everyone I know knows someone who’s changed their mind from No to Yes. Of course, not everyone is champing at the bit to have another referendum — people are weary of the amount of times they’ve been asked to go to the ballot box in the past few years. And there’s still a nervousness about independence. But Aberdeenshire is a bellwether. If we could get past 50 percent here, there would be a landslide across Scotland,” Martin said.
A no-deal Brexit would spark a “chain reaction,” she said. “In cold political terms, of course it would have an effect [in increasing support for independence]. But do I want that to happen? No. I’m the person who refers people to food banks and deals with the fallout of economic disaster.”
She insisted that the SNP has never been about “blood and soil nationalism. We want self-government, self-determination. We’re not interested in Trumpian, build-the-wall nationalism. We want open-the-doors, progressive internationalism. But we want for Scotland all the powers that other nations enjoy.”
In 2014, the No campaign was boosted by former British prime minister Gordon Brown’s powerful interventions, making the case for solidarity between nations.
Five years later, Brown is still a forceful advocate of the union, arguing this week that “to prevent the rise and rise of dysfunctional nationalism the first step is to stop No Deal in its tracks.”
Brown recently warned that Johnson could be the UK’s last prime minister, saying “no matter what he may say now, two decades of anti-Scottish invective will come back to haunt him.”
Brexit had “created a new dimension to the debate,” Brown told the Observer last week. “Two forces are coming together — Boris Johnson being seen as hostile to Scottish aspirations, and Scotland voting against Brexit in the referendum. So the future of the union has moved center stage, and it’s got to be taken into account now in what decisions governments make.”
The “descent into nationalism across the UK is a worrying feature. But people have not heard what the true consequences of independence for Scotland actually are,” he said.
The SNP was in favor of “a hard independence as opposed to a soft independence,” which would result in a “decade of hyper-austerity,” he said.
Furthermore, the Conservatives only had “a negative message, a holding operation for the union,” he said.
“I’ve always argued you need to put the positive case for Scotland staying in Britain, to lead in Britain rather than leave Britain. I will keep fighting, all the time I have, for Britain to stay in the European Union and for Britain to maintain its connections with Europe,” Brown added.
“I will also fight for the idea of a multinational state, which is what Britain is,” he said. “And I’m optimistic about young people in this country, who don’t see that you’ve got to make a choice between being Scottish or British, or between being British and European. The idea that we’re all islands separated off from each other does not make sense. So I won’t give up on these ideas.”
In Inverurie’s market square, most of those willing to express a view appeared to favor independence.
However, they might not be representative. Many who declined to discuss their political leanings may be supporters of the union.
Danny Henderson said he voted No in 2014, but now would vote Yes “if they had the basic questions sorted,” including “money and the currency question,” healthcare provision and the armed forces.
Rory Pearce, a teacher originally from Northern Ireland, declared himself pro-Europe and pro-independence.
“I’m in favor of independence for Northern Ireland too, and I hope Scotland will be a stepping stone to that,” he added.
“The break-up of the UK is definitely more likely now. Johnson is hell-bent on no deal. So let Scotland decide its own future,” he said.
YEARS OF SEPARATION
A referendum on Scottish devolution is held, but not backed by the necessary 40 percent of the electorate. Donald Dewar, who would go on to become the inaugural first minister of Scotland, campaigned for a Yes vote alongside the Conservative Alick Buchanan-Smith and the Liberal Russell Johnston.
The introduction of then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s deeply unpopular poll tax led to mass demonstrations in Scotland and helped revive the independence movement.
Then-British prime minister Tony Blair promises devolution for Scotland. A referendum backs a Scottish parliament with tax-raising powers. In 1998, the Scottish Act assigns devolved powers to a 129-member Scottish parliament, elected in 1999. Labour wins 56 seats, SNP 35 seats, Conservatives 18, and Lib Dems 17.
The SNP wins a majority in the Scottish parliament and Alex Salmond, left, becomes first minister. The following year, the Edinburgh Agreement is signed by Salmond and then-British prime minister David Cameron, paving the way for a referendum on Scottish independence.
The people of Scotland vote in a referendum on the question: Should Scotland be an independent country? 55 percent no, 45 percent yes. Just before the vote, Alex Salmond says: “This is a once in a generation opportunity, perhaps even a once in a lifetime opportunity for Scotland.”
The EU referendum. Scotland votes to stay in the EU, 62 percent to 38 percent. Scottish First MKinister Nicola Sturgeon says the result “represents a significant and a material change of the circumstances in which Scotland voted against independence.” A second referendum “must be on the table.”
Boris Johnson becomes British prime minister, pledging to take Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31, deal or no deal. An opinion poll shows a small lead among Scots in favor of independence amid talk of a break-up of the UK. Labour shadow chancellor of the exchequer, John McDonnell, says Labour would allow another referendum if in power.
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