NOEL KING, HOST:
The ties that bind the United Kingdom together are straining. Part of it is Brexit. Part of it is the government's mishandling of the coronavirus. And the Scots are getting restless. For the first time, polls consistently show most Scots want independence from the U.K. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Edinburgh.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: This is John Craig. He's playing the alto sax. Craig also runs the student union at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Six years ago, he and most voters here voted against leaving the United Kingdom because Craig knew that leaving the U.K. would mean leaving the European Union and all the rich, educational and performing opportunities it offered to musicians like him.
JOHN CRAIG: We were promised during the 2014 referendum the only way to retain your membership with the EU is to vote no and stay within the U.K. And we were also promised that no referendum would happen on EU membership.
LANGFITT: Well, we all know how that turned out. Britain held its Brexit referendum in 2016. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. But England, by far the largest nation inside the United Kingdom, easily outvoted them.
CRAIG: I hate admitting that I felt tricked. But absolutely, yeah, I definitely felt tricked. And I placed a lot of blame on myself for tying Scotland down to this. It took a lot of, like, self-reflection to not feel totally embarrassed of what had happened.
LANGFITT: If Scotland holds another independence referendum, poll suggest it will pass. A recent poll found a whopping 58% of likely voters back leaving the U.K. The ruling Scottish National Party is running on its independence platform in elections to the regional parliament in May. If the party does well, as expected, it will press the British government for a second independence vote. Prime Minister Boris Johnson opposes the idea, which makes people like John Craig even angrier.
CRAIG: I feel like my Democratic right is being blocked within my own country. I have a democratic right to ask for Scottish independence because that is the will that we have in recent polling. I feel, like, ignored as a citizen in the U.K.
LANGFITT: Brexit isn't the only factor driving support for Scottish independence, another is Boris Johnson. Under his leadership, the U.K. has recorded the most coronavirus deaths in all of Europe. Many Scots aren't impressed.
SANDY COMFORT: He's a buffoon, totally out of his depth. I think he's in it purely for the power.
JIM WELSH: I think he's a nut job. I think he's a bit as daft as your Trump. I don't have any respect for the guy.
FARZANA HAQ: I do not trust Boris Johnson.
LANGFITT: That was Sandy Comfort (ph), a retired lawyer in Kingussie in the Scottish Highlands, Jim Welsh (ph), who works as an electrical technician offshore in the North Sea, and Farzana Haq (ph), a pharmacist in the town of Dunfermline, northwest of Edinburgh. Haq voted against independence in 2014. But she'll vote for it if she gets another chance in part because she thinks Johnson's a hypocrite. She cites the prime minister's refusal to fire his chief adviser after he drove across England in violation of a national lockdown earlier this year.
HAQ: We've been following the rules up here. And to be told that we could've broken the rules and it's fine and the government will just stand by you because he happens to be the chief aide was just ridiculous. It was heartbreaking for a lot of people when they learned that they could have just jumped in the car and drove into their parents' house.
LANGFITT: Many in Scotland have also been disappointed in Johnson for making grandiose promises...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating.
LANGFITT: ...That have either fizzled or failed. The Scottish government has also made mistakes. But Haq credits Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, for being transparent with the public.
HAQ: She's prepared to come up and stand in front of journalists and take questions every day. And she's prepared to put her hands up when there's a mistake. I do not believe a word that Boris Johnson says. They have made a number of errors. And not one person in his cabinet has taken responsibility.
LANGFITT: In a recent poll, seven out of 10 Scots said they were satisfied with Sturgeon's performance, while more than three quarters were disappointed with Johnson's. Scotland and England have a long and bitter history. They fought dozens of battles over the centuries.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting).
LANGFITT: One of the most famous battles was here in Bannockburn in 1314. That's when Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots, defeated the English. The sounds and images are recreated at the visitor center north of Edinburgh. Scotland eventually joined England in 1707 in part to profit off the colonies. Fiona Watson's a historian.
FIONA WATSON: Because the Scots were desperate to get into empire. And so that to some...
LANGFITT: Get in on the action?
WATSON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you weren't going to be in there, you were not going to be anything.
LANGFITT: But some of the economic rationale that drove the relationship faded in the 20th century.
WATSON: You get the demise of the British Empire and the demise of the huge manufacturing that Scotland had been such a part of. So you're starting to see the economic benefits of union becoming less clear at a time when the British state was intruding. So all of these combine to see the beginnings, I think, of political Scottish nationalism.
LANGFITT: There are still big financial reasons for Scotland to stick with the United Kingdom. The U.K. provides a hefty annual subsidy to Scotland. And when the coronavirus hit, it guaranteed an additional $8 1/2 billion in funding.
ALEX JAMESON: I don't want independence.
LANGFITT: Alex Jameson (ph) is a retired cop from Glasgow.
JAMESON: I think we're better together. I think we're stronger together. If we'd been independent when this epidemic happened, we'd be - we wouldn't have the money, the finance, to get ourselves through it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LANGFITT: Back here in Edinburgh, pubs and restaurants are once again closed because of the pandemic. The only live music is out on the streets. And many laid off workers have the British treasury to thank for covering much of their lost wages. Whether money will provide enough glue to hold the country together is one of the big questions. Surveys show that the entire nation is straining at the seams in a way not seen in decades. Ailsa Henderson is a professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh.
AILSA HENDERSON: You've got a majority support for independence in Scotland. You've got rising support for independence in Wales. You've got polling on a united Ireland that is hitting over 50% in Northern Ireland.
LANGFITT: Polls have never shown this level of division in the United Kingdom. The next test for the union comes here in May. The Scottish National Party will try to use a strong showing to demand another independence vote and put the British government in a bind.
HENDERSON: It's very difficult if you're saying to an electorate, how you express yourself peacefully and democratically at the ballot box, no matter what you say, it won't matter.
LANGFITT: But Henderson says Boris Johnson has been willing to make unpopular decisions like that before and hope the problem will eventually just go away.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Edinburgh.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALASDAIR FRASER AND NATALIE HAAS' "THE SAILOR'S WIFE/THE LADS OF DUNS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.