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Sensemaker, 14 October 2020

Wednesday 14 October 2020

What just happened


Long stories short

  • A draft EU statement says not enough progress has been made in EU-UK talks to agree a trade deal before Boris Johnson’s mid-October deadline.
  • Russia said US expectations of a new nuclear weapons treaty were a “delusion”.
  • Northern Ireland announced a four-week “circuit-breaker” lockdown including a two-week half term for schools.

Exit Scotland? Brexit and Covid are driving Scotland and England measurably apart, to the point that by next spring a second independence referendum could be a matter of when, not if, and a break-up of the UK the most likely outcome.

Why such gloom for unionists and optimism for nationalists after 314 years of mainly cordial co-habitation? Two recent polls are a big part of the answer.

  • In the first, on Sunday, 64 per cent of Scots who expressed a view said they thought the country would vote yes in a second referendum. Substantially more have switched from no to yes on independence than vice versa since the last vote in 2014.
  • In the second poll, published yesterday, 67 per cent of Scots said they thought the Scottish government was competent, and 70 per cent said they thought the UK government was not.

The caveats:

  • Both polls were commissioned by Progress Scotland, set up by former Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson specifically to help prepare the case for independence.
  • That headline 64 per cent number in the first poll is nearly ten points higher than an average of other polls asking how people would vote in a referendum, but that is not the same as asking what they think the result would be. This poll also skates past a lot of “don’t knows”.

Even so, some of Scotland’s most prominent unionists are deeply worried, for reasons that have more to do with politics than polls:

  • Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, has burnished her leadership credentials during the Covid crisis as dramatically as Boris Johnson’s have deflated.
  • Buoyed by Remainers who resent being dragged out of the EU by England, the SNP is poised to win a solid and possibly overwhelming majority of seats in next May’s Scottish parliamentary elections.
  • It will then have to decide whether to seek clearance from Westminster for a second referendum – as Sturgeon planned to this year until Covid intervened. Johnson’s position is firmly against and legally strong given his 80-seat majority and the 54-46 split in favour of union in the 2014 referendum. But as Akash Paun of the Institute for Government notes: “In the long run you can’t make a union work if a majority in one part clearly want to leave and consistently vote on that basis.”

This is one reason we’re hosting a ThinkIn tonight on whether Sturgeon will lead Scotland to independence (do join us). But there’s another: Sturgeon herself. At her moment of maximum leverage she may be heading for implosion if found to have misled the Scottish parliament about allegations of sexual assault by her predecessor, Alex Salmond.

Salmond was acquitted of all charges earlier this year – we covered his trial in detail – but the question of how much Sturgeon knew, and when, could yet destroy her. Last week she submitted written evidence to a Holyrood inquiry into whether she broke the ministerial code during the Salmond affair. If she did, the pressure on her to resign could prove irresistible.

That said, she’s in control right now. Sturgeon would not have predicted Brexit or Covid when she won the leadership of the SNP six years ago, but she hasn’t let either crisis go to waste. It would be remarkable if she didn’t help determine where Scotland ends up six years from now.

And where will that be? Remainer Scots viewing independence as a route back into the EU could get lucky, but they’d have to get round the problem of a hard border with the rump UK first, and in Ireland that hasn’t been straightforward.

In the app today… Listen to part 3 of Happy, in which an elephant from the Bronx Zoo takes her bid for freedom to court. If you want to start from the beginning, here are part 1 and part 2Sign up for tonight’s ThinkIn with psephologist extraordinaire Sir John Curtice on whether Nicola Sturgeon will lead Scotland to independence, and for tomorrow’s Responsible Business Summit with Alan Jope, Claire Perry, Dave Lewis and many more.

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Slippery Amazon
The UK government said that its new digital services tax, announced in April, would force tech giants to “pay their fair share towards supporting our public services”. Six months on, Amazon seems to be largely exempt. The Times’ Oliver Wright reports that the online behemoth will pay the tax only on its share of revenues from sales by third parties paying to use its platform. Amazon says it will pass on that cost in higher fees to those third parties – and it won’t pay anything extra on revenues from goods it sells itself. It paid £293 million in UK tax last year, on sales of £13.73 billion. Nice work if you can grab it.


New things technology, science, engineering

Star spaghetti
Astronomers have had their best view yet of a star being ripped to shreds by a black hole. A flash of light close to a known black hole 215 million light years away alerted researchers at the European Southern Observatory in the Atacama Desert in Chile to what’s known as a “tidal disruption event”. The powerful gravitational pull of the black hole “spaghettified” the star, tearing it into ribbons of dust and gas. The scientists were able to observe the process in more detail than ever before and hope they’ll now be able to understand similar ones better. In this case the star, about the size of our sun, was consumed by a black hole about a million times more massive.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Overfracked?
What happens when multiple frackers frack intensively in roughly the same area for a sustained period? One of the biggest US investors in the field says the process has created or widened underground fissures between deposits of oil-bearing shale, lowering the pressure in all of them – and that pressure is needed to help get the oil out economically. Without it, this “artificial permanent porosity” has reduced the amount of available oil. To note: fracking more than doubled America’s oil output over the past decade, turning it back into an energy exporter. If large parts of the sector cease to be viable with oil prices at current levels, Opec will be delighted.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Moonshot stuck
The government’s pilot project for mass Covid testing in Salford – intended as a trial for Operation Moonshot, which would involve millions of rapid daily tests – has struggled to reach even 250 people per day, according to the Guardian. The plan, outlined six weeks ago at the launch of the pilot, was to begin by testing the saliva of 250 people a day, rapidly ramping up capacity to test all 254,000 Salford residents. After a week-long pause due to concerns about the reliability of the saliva testing tech, the project is now to be downsized and will test “high-risk” areas of the city only. Last week Tortoise looked at why Operation Moonshot is an absurd enterprise. This seems to support our hunch.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Battle for the senate
While two elderly white men slug it out for the White House in a race that may not be decided on 3 November, a more diverse crowd is fighting for control of the Senate, whose make-up will determine to a large extent whether the next US president is a doer or a place-holder. In particular: some polls show Jaime Harrison, a Black former lobbyist and the Democratic challenger, in a dead heat with Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. Graham beat his last Democratic rival by nearly 17 percentage points six years ago. Since then he’s attacked Trump as a “jackass”, switched to the role of adoring supporter, and found there’s a price to pay for changing his mind. The Real Clear Politics “no toss-ups” forecast, which predicts outcomes on the basis of opinion polls so far, shows control of the Senate flipping to the Democrats by a single seat next month – without a win in South Carolina.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill

Photographs ESO/M. Kornmesser, Getty Images