The Scottish independence process has historically been 300 years old and has been legal since 2010. They link independence to Russia’s interests in Europe and portray the anti-NATO image of Nicola Sturgeon and his party in London’s new media line to tarnish Sturgeon’s image. Last year (months before the Ukraine-Russia war), Sturgeon proposed that Trident nuclear launchers and missile installations be relocated to the Faroe Islands in northern Britain or mainland Britain in the event of independence. This has nothing to do with the Ukraine-Russia war.
Scottish independence agenda
Scotland, which entered a voluntary union with England in 1707, has seen a growing independence movement since the 1970s due partly to the rise of the SNP and dissatisfaction over London’s control of revenue from North Sea oil. Growing demands for the devolution of power from Westminster to Edinburgh led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. However, a 2014 referendum on independence from the UK failed after 55 per cent of the Scottish public voted against it. A significant issue in that vote was the desire to stick with the UK’s long-standing membership in the EU rather than secede and apply for EU membership as an independent nation. The 2016 Brexit vote changed that calculus: Scotland’s voters overwhelmingly rejected breaking with the EU, and many view the UK withdrawal as a deep betrayal.
The COVID-19 pandemic further spurred support for Scottish independence, which now polls over 50 per cent, because First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s adept handling of the crisis, which contrasted sharply with London’s mismanagement. Health policy is one of the primary devolved powers, and the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood established separate curfews, lockdowns, and related coronavirus restrictions, competently navigating uncharted waters. This also effectively neutralized another of the arguments against independence from 2014, that the Scottish government cannot operate effectively in a crisis. Demographic trends are also a strong propellant for the independence movement. A 2020 public opinion poll found that over 70 per cent of Scots aged 16–34 support independence.
What were the election results?
Sturgeon vowed to seek a new referendum if pro-independence parties won a majority. And indeed, the SNP, which has led the Scottish Parliament since 2007, achieved a historic fourth-consecutive victory. Though its 64 seats fell short of an outright majority in the 129-seat chamber by 1, it will form a pro-independence alliance with the Scottish Green Party, which controls eight seats. Sturgeon has declared that a fresh referendum is a matter of “when not if.” Still, the first minister will have to navigate a delicate policy landscape to maintain the Scottish Greens’ support, especially on clean energy. And the immediate priority remains steering Scotland’s pandemic recovery, which could work to the advantage of the nationalist movement by giving it time to shore up support ahead of another vote.
Although section 30 of the 1998 Scotland act enables Holyrood to pass legislation traditionally under the jurisdiction of Westminster, including holding an independence referendum, the UK prime minister must first approve the step. Since the devolution, Section 30 orders have been utilized sixteen times, including in 2014, when former British Prime Minister David Cameron entered an agreement with SNP leader Alex Salmond to convene the first independence referendum.
Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated that he will deny any request to hold a new referendum. That could prove politically untenable, as many Scots agree with journalist Jamie Maxwell that a Johnson veto would be tantamount to “transforming Britain from a voluntary association based on consent into a compulsory one.” As the SNP’s Michael Russell argued at a 2020 CFR event, “no one has the right to hold the march of a nation. If the people of Scotland say they want a referendum…anybody who is democratic has to accept that that is a right.” However, it could require an unprecedented challenge in the courts to overrule London’s opposition under Section 30.
Who decides whether Scotland should hold an independence referendum?
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has demanded a new independence referendum be held in late 2018 or early 2019, once the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union have become more precise. To do so, she needs authorization from Britain’s parliament, which is sovereign. The Brexit referendum last June called the future of the United Kingdom into question because majorities in England and Wales voted to leave. Still, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, most people voted to stay. Until recently, polls showed that support for independence had barely moved from the 45 per cent who backed it in the 2014 referendum. But polls in the last month have shown support for independence rising.
Scotland joined England in a political union in 1707. While Prime Minister Theresa May’s centre-right Conservative Party has a majority in the UK parliament, it has only one lawmaker in Scotland, and 54 of the 59 Scottish seats are held by Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP).
Why is the UK government holding back Scottish independence?
The 2014 vote saw 55 per cent opting to stay in the UK, but since Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen the UK suffer a relatively high death rate from the disease, opinion polls suggest support for independence has risen to around 50 per cent. This increases the possibility that if another referendum is held, Scotland will become an independent country again.
The UK would lose eight per cent of its population and around one-third of its landmass and have a significant impact on the UK’s role in the world. The loss of Scotland from the UK, through a democratic process, would be noted around the world. Most people would conclude, understandably, that it would be a diminution of the capacity of the remainder UK to project its interests. Scotland has always had a more significant part in the projection of the image of the UK internationally than its population size would suggest.
Scotland plays a substantial role in the cultural influence of the UK, and Scottish products are a big part of the British brand – losing those would diminish that brand. But I think the most significant impact will be on perceptions of Englishness among the English themselves, who make up 85 per cent of the UK’s population, and the projection of Englishness as a national identity. That identity has been subsumed into British identity for 300 years. Scotland’s departure would train a process of reflection, the outcome of which is complicated to predict but, I think, would have a substantial psychological impact.
Boris Johnson’s government blames Nicola Sturgeon for supporting Russia and calling her anti-NATO leader. The British government is trying to tarnish the image of Sturgeon so that this issue can overshadow the freedom movement in Scotland.
There would, of course, be some damage from the loss of Scottish economic capabilities, such as natural resources and some iconic products, as well as its capacity in the research base and the abilities of the Scottish population. But as a much bigger economy, these losses would be absorbed and would not disrupt the remainder UK’s economy materially over time. The SNP says it wants an independent Scotland to join the EU and much of Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK is in services not covered by the Brexit agreement between the EU and UK. Scotland also exports energy to the rest of the UK, and so this would need to conform to EU energy policy. As Brexit has shown, such issues could complicate trade and increase the cost of commerce between Scotland and the remainder UK. Now whatever issues the UK government would raise, it would not make any change in attaining independence from Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon. London’s new media line to defame the image of Sturgeon would not affect the aim of Scotts achieving independence.