Just two years after Scotland voted to remain part of the UK, Scottish National Party leaders are planning to set in motion a second referendum on independence. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who replaced Alex Salmond after the first vote, used her opening address at the SNP conference to announce a consultation on legislation for the poll to be introduced in the Scottish Parliament. This move – while hardly surprising given previous comments – poses two vital questions: is there a greater appetite for independence among Scottish voters than in 2014? And how will the British Government respond?
While independence has of course always been the goal of the SNP, and few in the party would have abandoned that dream after the first referendum, the immediate cause (some would say pretext) of the second attempt is the UK’s vote to leave the EU.
The SNP argues that a large part of the Better Together campaign was based on the premise that only staying in the UK could guarantee Scotland’s EU membership, with several EU Member States (notably Spain) deeply opposed to allowing a seceding sub-national entity to either continue its membership uninterrupted or have an accelerated accession timetable.
With the UK voting to leave – in contrast with Scotland, which backed Remain – the nationalist argument suggests the first IndyRef vote was based on a lie.
While circumstances have of course changed dramatically, it does not necessarily follow that Brexit makes a Scottish independence vote – Scoxit? – any more likely.
Scots voted by a margin of 62 per cent to 38 per cent to stay in the EU. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that the 38 per cent would back staying in the UK rather than the SNP’s plans to stay in the EU; the entire rationale for a second independence referendum relies on the EU referendum, so those who got the outcome they supported are highly unlikely to support independence.
In order to push the vote share for staying in the UK above 50 per cent, therefore, only about one fifth of those who voted to stay in the EU would have to feel this is less important than staying in the UK. Since many of the arguments are in fact the same – that small countries are vulnerable and it is better to be part of a larger whole – this is not implausible, especially since a vote for Scoxit may not automatically mean continuing EU membership, if Madrid and others object.
It also seems probable that some Remain voters cast their ballot in part as a repudiation of the nationalist tendency sweeping Europe and identified in the UK mostly with UKIP, but more broadly with the right. These voters would not naturally align themselves with a nationalist party, even one which sees itself as internationalist in perspective.
Finally, Labour voters who supported Remain cannot be relied upon by the SNP. While the SNP would seek to portray the decision as a choice between a Conservative-governed Britain and an economically left-wing party committed to Europe, the Scottish Labour leadership is all but certain to support staying in the UK and would likely carry a large chunk of its voters with it.
The required proportion would fall even further if we assume that those who did not know or care enough about EU membership to vote in June are likely to be less politically engaged, which in Scottish terms would suggest weaker support for independence (separatism having, perhaps, come to be seen as a more ideological stance than unionism).
It is therefore far from certain that, should a vote be held, the clear majority that backed EU membership would be transferred en bloc to the nationalist column in a second independence poll.
Ruffling Westminster feathers
However, there may not be any such vote – depending on how the plans are seen from London.
There is a huge difference between the first referendum and the present talk of a second vote.
The British Government under David Cameron agreed that the SNP’s strong performance in Scottish Parliament elections gave it a mandate to hold a referendum. His successor Theresa May believes no such thing. She can point to the SNP’s loss of its majority in elections in May to back this assessment (though the support of the Scottish Greens means the SNP will probably still be able to pass legislation on a referendum). More broadly, the Prime Minister has publicly and repeatedly said the decision on EU membership was taken by the UK as a whole.
While this does raise questions over democratic legitimacy, and why there were no safeguards comparable to those imposed in Australia where referenda must be approved by a majority of the states, there was never any legal or political commitment that any part of the UK would be able to decide on EU membership for itself. Taken to extremes, this argument would also see Northern Ireland, London, Gibraltar and perhaps other English cities separate themselves in one way or another, and thereby completely destroy the UK. The risk of setting a precedent means the Government has a strong interest in rejecting the legitimacy of a second Scottish vote.
Assuming that neither London nor Edinburgh backs down, it appears likely that the two are set for a far more confrontational period than that which preceded the first independence referendum. The situation could, perhaps, deteriorate to the level of the Spanish-Catalan standoff. Those of a pessimistic disposition may also wish to draw parallels with the self-determination struggles of Kosovo, or the situation in former Yugoslavia more generally. Demands for independence referenda are very difficult to resist, even if it is unclear whether there is a majority in support of separation.
While David Cameron was perhaps over-confident in his use of plebiscites to settle complex and divisive issues, and was fatally undone by his decision to hold a vote on Europe, in a sense he was right. By far the most effective and legitimate way to defuse nationalism, or any political ideology, is to put it to a popular vote and watch it be roundly defeated. The problem, of course, is that the outcome cannot be assumed. Cameron won his Scottish vote relatively narrowly, and the EU vote of course spiralled out of his control. Ms May is a far more risk-averse politician, and after the experience of June, she is highly unlikely to gamble with the Union – a concept she has placed at the heart of her philosophy – the way her predecessor did.
The British Government faces an extremely awkward conundrum. As explained above, there are good reasons to believe that Scots would not vote to leave the UK in the event of another referendum. However, the possibility that they could all but rules out the British Government allowing such a vote.
This in turn raises the spectre of the SNP holding a vote without the blessing of the UK authorities, in the manner of the Catalan poll of 2014. This would have little legal force but would, whatever the outcome, be a direct challenge to the British state. If such a vote did back separation, the UK would face a crisis comparable to that after the thirteen colonies or Ireland declared independence.
Perhaps the best chance of avoiding that outcome is if opinion polls consistently show support for Scottish independence below 50 per cent. Alternatively, if – as suggested by European Council President Donald Tusk – the UK determines that the cost of Brexit is too high, a later decision to stay in the EU (by another referendum, a General Election or Government decision) would remove the rationale for Scoxit.
Finally, there is a slim chance of what has been dubbed a “reverse Greenland”, in which England and Wales opt to leave the EU the same way Greenland did, while Scotland and Northern Ireland stay in, as with Denmark, while remaining part of the UK with substantially increased devolution, just as Greenland remains part of the Kingdom of Denmark. While far more complex (Greenland was not considered a major departure from the EU, being remote, economically peripheral and sparsely populated) the precedent is there if the constitutional arrangements can be made.
All that can be said with certainty is that a second referendum has become substantially more likely this week. Where that leads is entirely unknown.
Click here to read Nicola Sturgeon's opening address at the 2016 SNP Party Conference. For further information about our definitive conference coverage, please contact your Monitoring Consultant.
As News Assistant, Ben keeps DeHavilland's Newsdesk functions running smoothly from day to day. A graduate of the University of Sheffield, Ben has experience working for the Council of the EU, and completed a traineeship with Scotland Europa and the City of London Corporation office in Brussels.