The Speaker
Thursday, 13 June 2024 – 09:16

Will Scotland become independent?

In 2014, Scotland voted 55% to 44% to remain part of the United Kingdom. Yet, the question of independence has never really gone away. Five years on from Scotland’s independence referendum, this issue is still prominent in political debate across the country. So, how likely is a second bid for independence, and would it be successful?

#GE2019: full steam ahead or a spanner in the works?  

The calls for a second referendum intensified in 2016 after the EU referendum, in which Scotland voted by 62% to remain in the EU. Having declared that Scotland being taken out of the EU “against its will” would be justification for fresh vote, since the dramatic Brexit result the SNP has repeatedly argued that Scotland’s voice continues to be ignored in Westminster.

This rhetoric has prevailed throughout the general election campaign too. Most recently in the Scottish leaders’ debate, SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that “circumstances in Scotland have changed dramatically and significantly since the 2014 referendum,” adding that “the last few years have demonstrated to us the price we are paying for not being independent.”

While the SNP’s unwavering commitment to a second referendum is clear, the outcome of the 2019 general election could have important implications for this goal. The party looks set to make gains on December 12, suggesting its central proposition of an independent nation is resonating with Scottish voters. But the overall national results will ultimately hold the key.

In May 2019 the Scottish government published a Referendum Framework Bill, setting the basis for another referendum. But crucially, this requires Westminster consent in the form of a Section 30 order, as normally the Scottish parliament is not allowed to pass legislation relating to the Union. In 2012, Westminster granted a Section 30 order, which transferred power temporarily to the Scottish parliament to hold the first independence referendum. This would be required once again.

The Conservatives have taken a tough stance against granting a Section 30 order; citing the need for a “generation” to pass before another vote, Boris Johnson has pledged to reject any request from the Scottish government. It’s likely that a Conservative majority government would therefore constitute a major obstacle to a new referendum. A hung parliament, on the other hand, could deliver a different outcome. Recently the Labour party has been warming to the prospect of a deal with the SNP, in which it would back a Labour minority government on the condition that the Scottish parliament can decide the timing of a second referendum.

If the UK government continued to block a second referendum, the SNP could go ahead without Westminster approval. But the general view is that although repeated refusal from Westminster may be unacceptable, in the end Westminster approval is necessary, particularly so the legality of the vote – and its result – cannot be questioned. Considering what has happened in Catalonia, a unilateral path does not look too desirable.  

Soft Brexit, Hard Brexit – could it make a difference?

While the Brexit vote has given extra momentum to the prospect of a second referendum, how the UK leaves the EU could also influence the result of a potential #indyref2.  

Public support for independence shot up briefly following the EU referendum, but soon narrowed once again, with neither side showing signs of a clear victory.

However, research has suggested that the outcome of the Brexit process could play a role in voters’ decisions. An April 2019 Panelbase survey found that a no-deal Brexit would cause a significant amount of voters to change their vote from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’, giving ‘Yes’ a lead of 52%-48%.

Again, much could depend on the outcome of the general election. Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit with a basic free trade deal would see the UK diverge from the EU, whereas Jeremy Corbyn has promised a “Labour Brexit”, pursuing renegotiation with the EU to offer closer alignment to the single market. A closer relationship with the EU post-Brexit could prove more palatable to a majority remain Scotland, helping to weaken the appetite for independence.

Nicola Sturgeon has made clear that a referendum should only be held once there is more clarity on Brexit, allowing voters to make an informed choice on Scotland’s future. The type of Brexit pursued will likely define that very choice.  

The EU mood softens

Given that Scotland’s vote to remain in the EU is often used by nationalists to justify a second bid for independence, another key factor influencing the debate is whether an independent Scotland would be able to join the EU.

A recent Lord Ashcroft poll indicated a divided public view on whether to prioritise Scotland remaining in the UK, at 43%, or remaining in the EU, at 45%. A narrow victory for prioritising the EU highlights the importance of membership to the Scottish public. Scotland’s prospects of joining the EU as an independent country could play a major role in swinging remain voters towards supporting independence.

The view from the EU side is much more positive towards independence than it was in 2014. Speaking to the BBC in September, former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy said that a Scottish application would be “very seriously considered,” noting that there is increased sympathy for Scotland’s current predicament.  

However, achieving Scottish membership would not be without its complications. As an independent country, it would be required to apply under the formal accession procedure. Whilst accession negotiations and meeting the criteria for membership should not be too much of a problem, Scotland would lose the opt-outs that the UK had negotiated as part of its membership, meaning it would likely have to commit to joining the euro. A major difficulty could also be encountered through the need for the consent of all member states to join: Spain could block Scotland’s accession over fears of encouraging its own breakaway region, Catalonia.

Additionally, Scottish membership of the EU could cause some all too familiar border debates to resurface, this time at the English-Scottish border. Johnson’s current Brexit deal will see the UK making a clear break from the EU, including the single market and customs union. Scotland seeking to re-join would then likely result in a hard border between England and Scotland, putting under threat Scotland’s close economic, political and social ties to the rest of the UK.

Despite a more positive reception from the EU side, membership is not so simple. This makes the case for Scottish independence, even in remain-voting Scotland, not as clear cut as we might think.

Another independence referendum in Scotland is definitely on the cards. But the debate remains a complex, contentious and close-fought issue, even more so since the 2016 vote to leave the EU. What is clear, however, is that how both the Brexit process and Westminster politics unfold over the next few months could play a deciding role.

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