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Scotland leader sees surge in support for virus response

Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has seen her popularity surge as a result of her handling of the response to the coronavirus pandemic
Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has seen her popularity surge as a result of her handling of the response to the coronavirus pandemic Jeff J Mitchell POOL/AFP/File
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Edinburgh (AFP)

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wore a tartan face mask on a recent visit to shops in Edinburgh, as they prepared to reopen after the long coronavirus lockdown.

The local kilt manufacturer that makes the masks subsequently saw a huge increase in demand.

At the same time, Sturgeon is enjoying a surge in popularity as a result of her handling of the Scottish government's response to the global pandemic.

Opinion polls show not only high approval ratings for the Scottish National Party leader herself, but also an increase in support for the SNP's central policy -- independence.

After a strong showing at last year's general election, analysts say the SNP is in an even stronger position ahead of Scottish parliamentary elections next year.

"In a time of great uncertainty, people look for a leader who can reassure them," said Iain Black, from the pro-nationalist Scottish Independence Convention.

"Nicola Sturgeon has done exceptionally well at communicating her compassion during her daily public briefings.

"She has helped to alleviate people's anxiety by providing a sense of certainty throughout the pandemic. This is not something that will be easily forgotten," he told AFP.

- Different approach -

Some 2,500 people have died in the coronavirus outbreak in Scotland, where Sturgeon's response -- and the easing of lockdown measures in particular -- has contrasted sharply with that of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Johnson, 56, has come under fire for his handling of the pandemic and Britain now has the highest death toll in Europe -- around 45,000, with broader statistics suggesting it could be even more.

Even with lingering questions about testing and contact-tracing, Johnson began lifting the lockdown earlier in England.

But Sturgeon, 49, has refused to follow suit, estimating that infection rates in Scotland were still too high.

Her refusal to slavishly follow UK government guidance from London has won her support from leaders in Wales and Northern Ireland, which also have devolved administrations.

Sturgeon's opponents have often accused the former lawyer of being a divisive figure in her push for independence, an issue thought to have been settled for a generation in 2014 when a majority of Scots voted to maintain the three-centuries-old union.

But polling group Panelbase last week said 54 percent of Scots were now in favour of going it alone -- nine points up on the number six years ago.

Sturgeon's approval rating soared to 60 percent, the survey indicated.

John Curtice, from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, said an average of Panelbase polls over the past six months put support for independence at 51 percent.

He predicted the SNP will win 74 of the 129 seats at Holyrood next May -- up 13 -- cementing their position and the case for another vote on independence.

"Unsurprisingly, for many nationalists, the past three months have exemplified how Scotland could govern itself better as an independent, small country," Curtice told the Sunday Times.

"Never before have the foundations of public support for the Union looked so weak."

- Anti-Brexit sentiment -

Central to Sturgeon's case for a so-called "indyref2" is Scotland's majority vote to stay in the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

She argues Britain's departure from the bloc does not reflect the will of the Scottish people.

But Johnson has emphatically ruled out granting permission for a fresh vote.

All eyes are now on whether the UK government can secure a favourable trade deal with Brussels before the end of the year.

A no-deal -- or a bad one -- could hurt the Scottish economy, already facing a potentially crippling downturn from the pandemic.

"Anti-Brexit sentiment is extremely high in Scotland," said Gordon MacIntyre, chief executive of the pro-independence Business for Scotland group.

"Many who voted against independence in 2014 voted to remain in the EU in 2016," he told AFP.

"The union will be as good as dead" if the trade deal makes the situation worse, and no new referendum is granted, he added.

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