Scotland and Brexit | Is Independence Imminent?

Scotland and Brexit | Is Independence Imminent?

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As the United Kingdom approaches a crossroads on Brexit negotiations, the issue of Scottish independence has perhaps gone under the radar in recent years. But the appeal of Scottish independence, whilst notably not increasing in the polls, has never disappeared. And with Brexit causing the country to enter a state of paralysis, the notion of a re-run of the original referendum may not be so ridiculous after all. This is the view of Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland, who has put pressure on his successor to pursue a second referendum considering turmoil at Westminster.  This begs the question – is independence on the table? And if so, is it imminent? 

For a moment, let’s go back in time to 2014, which these days feels like it was decades ago rather than years. This year was supposed to be the defining year for Scotland’s future, with a referendum being secured by the SNP-controlled Scottish government. Alex Salmond even claimed that the referendum would not be repeated for “a generation”, regardless of the margin. Both sides would also abide by the result as set out in the Edinburgh Agreement, again no matter the margin of the result. With the rules of engagement in place, campaigning between supporters and opponents of independence followed suit. The resultwould be decided by a healthy turnout of 84.5% of the eligible voters of Scotland, or 4.3 million people. As we know now, the result was to remain part of the UK, with 55% voting against Scottish independence, compared to 45% who supported it. 

However, subsequent events have completely changed the situation. Another referendum was held in 2016, but on the issue of UK membership of the EU, and the result was to withdraw from the bloc. Despite 52% of the British electorate voting to leave the EU, 62% of Scots voted Remain, compared to 38% who voted Leave. This represented a problem that has plagued Scotland until the present day, with many feeling like they are being forced out of the EU against their wishes. This is summarised by Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, who in her speech following the referendum stated that Scotland was being “taken out of the EU against our will”. Because of this, it has felt as if the country is not quite as united as it once was, not just in terms of a straight divide between those who supported Remain or Leave, but in terms of entire regions. 

Since 2016, the SNP have tried to push the idea of a referendum on Scottish independence onto the negotiating table, wanting one to be held between late 2018 and early 2019, but was swiftly rejected by Theresa May in 2017, arguing that it is “not the time”for one to be held. But the issue has never gone away, with Sturgeon seemingly holding out for the right time to hold a second referendum and in such a way that the UK government cannot refuse it. Until then, she has made several demands, including the extension of Article 50to allow for negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal to continue. 

Having said all of this, questions must be answered. Will another Scottish independence referendum be held? Indicators, including polls and views of senior SNP figures, suggest that one is not imminent. In terms of the polls, Scottish independence remains relatively opposed, though the margin varies. According to John Curtice, the motivation for a second referendum remains rather low, with just over one-third backing a second referendum, while half oppose it. This blog was written in 2017, but recent polls suggest that support for independence is not particularly high. Moreover, the SNP’s support has declined in recent years, having lost seats in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, subsequently costing the party its majority. Because of this, the SNP need support from another party to pass any form of legislation supporting independence, and whilst they have had support from the Scottish Greens, relations have stalledbecause of concerns surrounding funding of local government.

Considering the agenda of the SNP is based largely on wanting independence, at least in the modern day, this is not a good indicator. Granted, many supporters of independence will come from outside the party but is nonetheless concerning for those who want an independent Scotland. And one of the biggest proponents of independence, Alex Salmond, is being accused of sexual harassment by two women. He denies it, but the issue has arguably tarnished the calls for independence because he was such a prominent figure in advancing it in the first place. Also, he still has a lot of support within the SNP, and this fallout has caused tensions between himself and Nicola Sturgeon.

With the SNP divided, it again puts into question the ability of the party to carry out a strong mandate and call for a second referendum. Sturgeon claims that the allegations against Mr. Salmond will not affect momentum for Scottish independence, telling Andrew Marr on the BBC that the issue was “bigger than any one man”and would continue preparing her plans for independence over the next few weeks. 

On the other hand, Westminster is evidently in chaos. And when there is chaos, sometimes there is opportunity for those who wish to advance their aims. It would be very difficult for Westminster to deny Scotland another referendum if they were to be united, at least in a sense that gives them a majority electorally. Brexit has undeniably caused a shift in politics since 2014, so it would be unfair to universally claim that the result of the referendum in 2014 remains intact. Scotland has changed over the years, though it has not spanned across a generation. With calls for a second referendum on EU membership starting to break through, why should calls for a second Scottish independence referendum not do the same? 

In short, my opinion is that a second referendum on independence should not be underestimated. Whilst Nicola Sturgeon finds herself in a predicament at the moment over controversies surrounding her processor, Alex Salmond, Brexit remains as uncertain as ever in terms of the impact it will have on the country. It also remains as turbulent as it was in 2016. Then again, support has generally stayed the same over the years, and Brexit hasn’t had the impact supporters of independence might have hoped it would have on the issue. It is not imminent, regardless of the situation. It depends on what Nicola Sturgeon will do during the initial months of 2019, and whether the UK will proceed with or without a deal. If there is no-deal, Scottish independence might suddenly become very popular and referendum will be held by the end of the year. If a deal is found, maybe a referendum will be held but supporters of Scottish independence might not be successful. Referendums are the current fashion, so don’t assume Scotland won’t consider it.

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