There is a delightful irony to Humza Haroon Yousaf, the 37-year-old son of Pakistani immigrants, having been elected the head of the Scottish National Party, and thus emerging as first minister of Scotland. For he now comes in direct confrontation with the Indian-origin PM of the United Kingdom in determining whether the UK will remain a united kingdom or split into two sovereign countries: Britain and Scotland. Partition was the price the Brits gouged out of us to grant us our independence. Now an ethnic Pakistani and an ethnic Indian will determine whether the United Kingdom of England and Scotland, twins joined at the hip in 1707, will remain twinned or be severed from one another. And even as the princely states hoped the departing Britons would succeed in carving out for them a separate Princestan, Wales and Northern Ireland also wait with bated breath to see whether the country to which they belong will be Balkanised, as India almost was, or survive as the rump Great Britain.
Yousaf’s clarion call has been “Stronger for Scotland”, and he has reiterated that his “would be the generation that delivers independence for Scotland”. To this end, he has declared that he seeks a second referendum to retest the outcome of the last referendum in 2014 that delivered a marginal verdict in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK. Yousaf insists that he is not looking for a marginal but decisive victory in a second referendum. Rishi Sunak has countered that a referendum would “distract” from “delivering on the things that are top of the priority list for people across Scotland”.
But the hard fact is that it is “independence” that is at the top of Scotland’s priority list. For in the Brexit referendum, Scotland voted to remain in the European Union while the UK as a whole marginally voted in favour of leaving. What Scotland now seeks is not only the dissolution of the Act of Union of 1707 but also the opportunity of rejoining the European Union from which, in the Scottish perception, Scotland gained a lot, reflecting Ireland’s view that EU membership grants a net reaping of benefits. Thus, a second referendum would be held in an overall scenario that is radically different to 2014.
On the other hand, polls suggest that support for secession from the UK has dropped in Scotland to 39 per cent, well below the 44.7 per cent who voted to quit the United Kingdom in 2014. Yet, the situation remains volatile as 58 per cent polled in favour of separating when Scotland’s pandemic performance proved far superior to England’s. Significantly, Yousaf was the celebrated Scottish minister who engineered Scotland’s impressive Covid-19 response.
Thus, for all his brave words, the Punjabi Indian British PM has his work cut out in his forthcoming battle with the Punjabi Pakistani first minister of Scotland. The last card up Sunak’s sleeve is that even a decisive referendum in favour of vivisecting the UK would not be the end of the matter. Westminster, where the UK parliament sits, has, according to the law, the final word. Unless the House of Commons accepts the outcome of any Scottish referendum, the partition of the UK cannot legally take place. Therefore, the ultimate irony would be if the British government were to set up a Cabinet Mission to negotiate their way out of the tangled mess that would be created by a successful Scottish referendum. It would parallel the imbroglio caused by the Indian elections in 1945-46 that required the despatch of the Cabinet Mission, whose leader, Pethick Lawrence came to be called “Pathetic Lawrence”!