A New Scottish Independence Vote Seems All but Inevitable
With increasing support from voters, the Scottish National Party is unlikely to give up its fight for a second referendum despite the procedural obstacles it faces.
GLASGOW, Scotland—In the British general election on Dec. 12, 2019, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a resounding mandate from its constituents, taking 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the U.K. House of Commons and 45 percent of all ballots cast by Scottish voters. A week later, on Dec. 19, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon sent a letter to Britain’s newly reelected Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson requesting the power to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence. (The first referendum, which took place in September 2014, resulted in a 10-point victory for the Anglo-Scottish union.)
On Jan. 14, the prime minister delivered his answer. “I cannot agree to any request … that would lead to further independence referendums,” he wrote in a formal memorandum to Sturgeon. “The people of Scotland voted decisively on that promise to keep our United Kingdom together … The U.K. government will continue to uphold the democratic decision [made in 2014].”
Johnson’s response came as no surprise to anyone, Sturgeon included. With the deadline for Brexit looming at the end of January and a raft of preelection spending pledges to implement, the last thing the Tory leader wants is a renewed battle over Scotland’s constitutional status and a scramble to shore up the U.K.’s increasingly tenuous political unity.
But that is precisely what he is going to get. Spurred by widespread Scottish opposition to leaving the European Union—and, after December, a fresh electoral mandate from the Scottish public—the SNP plans to intensify its campaign for independence in the coming months. The Tories are likely to boost U.K. public spending and redouble their attacks on the SNP in an attempt to contain Scottish discontent. But it may be too little, too late.
Even if Westminster continues to dismiss nationalist demands for another vote on separation from the U.K.—Alister Jack, the Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, recently said Sturgeon should have to wait “a lifetime” before a rerun of the 2014 plebiscite—the Scottish party and its supporters seem convinced that their goal of an independent Scottish state is becoming more and more likely.
That confidence was on full display in Glasgow on Saturday, Jan. 11, when an estimated 80,000 Scots braved the winter rain to join a huge pro-independence march through the center of Scotland’s largest city. Amid a riot of blue and white Saltires—the Scottish national flag—protesters carried placards embellished with separatist and anti-Tory slogans.
The mood was populist and defiant. “The election reinforces the fact that England and Scotland are going in completely different directions,” Bob Duncan, a veteran SNP activist, told me as the crowd pressed toward Glasgow Green, a public park on the banks of the River Clyde. “The Tories have no mandate to do anything up here.”
In the eyes of the SNP and wider Scottish nationalist movement, Johnson lacks the democratic legitimacy to govern Scotland. The Tories won an overwhelming majority of English constituencies on Dec. 12, routing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in its working-class heartlands and dramatically reshaping England’s political landscape. But north of the border—where discontent over Brexit is intense and mainstream opinion leans to the left—they went backward, losing seven of the 13 Scottish seats they won in the last U.K. general election in June 2017 and dropping almost 4 points on their 2017 vote share. It has now been more than 60 years since the Conservatives held a plurality of Scottish seats in the House of Commons.
Many nationalists, particularly at the grassroots level, are restive. They want Sturgeon to call a nonbinding or so-called consultative independence referendum as soon as possible, with the aim of capitalizing on Scottish hostility toward Johnson’s right-wing, pro-Brexit administration.
That’s unlikely to happen. Conscious of the ongoing judicial crisis in Spain over Catalonia’s attempts to secede—and keen to win credibility with EU policymakers—the Scottish first minister is determined to ensure that any future independence vote lies beyond legal challenge in the Scottish and U.K. courts. For that to be the case, an agreement will have to be reached between Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national legislature in Edinburgh, and the Tory government in London.
Senior SNP politicians believe Johnson, whose personal approval ratings in Scotland have been underwater since the beginning of his premiership in July 2019, will eventually concede another referendum—assuming he faces enough political pressure.
Kenny MacAskill served for seven years as justice secretary in the SNP government at Holyrood and was elected as the member of Parliament for East Lothian this past December. He thinks nationalists need to build a “broad civic coalition” for independence, drawing in the trade union movement, the not-for-profit sector, and even elements of the traditionally pro-union Scottish Labour Party in a way that mirrors the bipartisan campaign for Scottish devolution in the 1980s and 1990s.
If a clear consensus exists for a second referendum after the next Holyrood election in May 2021, MacAskill said, Johnson will have no choice but to talk to the SNP. “Whatever they say now, when the electorate speaks, the Tories will have to listen,” he told me. The alternative is continued electoral decline for the right in Scotland, he added, compounded by a burgeoning sense among Scottish electors that their presence in the union is not entirely voluntary.
There are signs that a broad consensus is already starting to take shape. On Dec. 15, Monica Lennon, one of 23 Labour representatives in the Scottish Parliament, said Westminster should let Holyrood legislate for a new referendum. “The future of Scotland must be decided by the people of Scotland,” she remarked. Lennon’s comments were echoed by Grahame Smith, the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, an influential umbrella body for the trade union movement in Scotland, who said on Jan. 3 that Labour—which lost six of its seven Scottish seats to the SNP in December—had “nothing to fear and much to gain” from debating the merits of independence.
Then, on Jan. 10, the veteran Labour politician Ben Bradshaw said he believed it was now “completely unsustainable” for London to deny Scotland another vote. “I have no doubt that Scotland will become independent,” Bradshaw—who held ministerial positions in the fiercely unionist Labour governments of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown—told the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. “For me, that is 100 percent certain.”
If Johnson does negotiate a referendum deal with Sturgeon at some point over the next 18 or 24 months, he may not encounter much resistance from his own—ostensibly unionist—political base. According to a YouGov poll conducted last year, 63 percent of Conservative Party members would be happy for Scotland to leave the U.K. if it meant England could complete its departure from the EU without disruption. Another poll, commissioned by the billionaire Conservative donor Michael Ashcroft, suggested that 76 percent of Tory Brexit voters in England felt the same way.
Michael Keating, a constitutional expert at the University of Edinburgh, believes there is a growing culture of indifference toward the union among significant—predominantly center-right and Brexit-supporting—sections of English society. This trend, driven by rising nationalist sentiment south of the Anglo-Scottish border, could weaken Johnson’s resolve to keep the union together. “Nobody wants to be the last prime minister of the U.K.,” Keating said.
However, not all Scottish political observers are convinced that Johnson, who commands a sweeping Conservative majority of 80 in House of Commons, will accommodate the SNP’s demands—or that Sturgeon will be able to outmaneuver him if he does consent to a second referendum. “I would never dismiss the sheer coalition of power that Johnson has behind him,” Joyce McMillan, an Edinburgh-based columnist for the Scotsman, told me.
Moreover, although there is no sign of Johnson offering Scotland a Northern Ireland-style Brexit compromise deal, which would leave the Scottish economy in close regulatory alignment with the EU single market after Britain departs the European bloc, the Tories appear to be working on a number of political and economic reforms designed to offset enthusiasm for independence among Scottish voters.
On Dec. 16, four days after last month’s general election, the Financial Times reported that Johnson was considering a “radical” overhaul of the House of Lords that, once enacted, would hand the U.K.’s constituent nations a “greater stake” in the British Parliament’s legislative upper chamber. Johnson has also committed to additional infrastructure expenditure across the U.K., as well as a steady increase in funding for the National Health Service. Speaking to Politico Europe, one Conservative Party source said these initiatives would form part of a PR effort in Scotland, managed from Downing Street, in an effort to push back on the SNP’s domestic popularity.
Emily St Denny, a politics lecturer at the University of Stirling, thinks the Tories’ abrupt embrace of higher public spending, after nearly a decade of self-imposed austerity, represents a strategic attempt to reunite Britain in the face of the deepening political divide between Scotland and England. The Johnson administration is orchestrating “a U.K.-wide push for regional investment aimed in part at disincentivizing Scots from joining the ranks of the independence supporters,” she told me. The prime minister’s overarching goal is to “bring [ordinary Scots] onside” before the widely anticipated negative economic consequences of Brexit start to kick in, she said.
But it’s not clear that more public money will be sufficient to paper over the increasingly pronounced cracks in Britain’s creaking constitutional architecture. Support for Scottish independence has been edging toward the 50 percent mark since September 2014, and Johnson’s ascendancy—fueled by a Euroskeptic English electorate with, at best, a vague desire to keep Scotland inside the U.K.—is likely to accelerate that trajectory.
Scottish nationalists certainly believe Scotland’s 300-year-old union with England is entering its final stages. The boisterous march through Glasgow was the first of eight pro-independence events planned across Scotland throughout the year, with more protests scheduled in Kirkcaldy, Stirling, and Edinburgh over the next few months. And, in the wake of its December election success, the SNP—which has held power at Holyrood since 2007—finds itself in a formidable political position, with its two main electoral rivals, the Conservatives and Labour, sidelined by the Scottish public.
Even the “dogs in the street know there’s going to be [a second] independence referendum,” Nicola Sturgeon said on Dec. 19. Despite his short-term denials, it may not be long before Boris Johnson, too, accepts the inevitability of another Scottish vote.