In pursuing a second independence referendum, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party (SNP) is facing large challenges that may upend any plans of holding it in the near future. These challenges include the global public health crisis and hesitation from the United Kingdom to allow a second referendum. Compared to the initial referendum in 2014, much of the political landscape and public opinion has changed, leaving the door open for a new bid, albeit with new challenges to consider.
Last month, Sturgeon said that she “intends to hold a ‘legal referendum’ on [Scottish] independence,” contingent on her party winning Scottish elections planned for May, according to the Associated Press. She explains that this is based on Brexit “dragging out Scotland out of the European Union against its will”, as most voters in Scotland voted to stay in the European Union in the 2016 referendum. Despite her push for a new bid, not everyone agrees with doing so. Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said in a speech that Sturgeon is putting her “party before pandemic”, saying the timing of her plans to hold a second independence vote is “reckless”. He also says that this push will “[damage] trust in the government when it is needed most”. Reuters reports that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he will not approve a second referendum; however, the SNP has said it will “vigorously oppose” any legal challenge from the British government”.
What is also unclear is if the May election will take place given that the pandemic trends in Scotland still remain unfavorable. Scotland’s COVID trends and demographics table tracker shows that cases are decreasing but still hover at about 1,000 cases per day (as of early February). The vaccination campaign’s speed will also be another factor in being able to hold elections in May or having them be postponed to another date. Combined with the determination of the SNP to hold a referendum, Johnson will also face challenges to his stance.
Whether Scotland chooses to remain in the United Kingdom. or becomes independent has several implications. Politically, a successful referendum will bolster the SNP’s standing given that it has been a topic on its agenda for many years. It will also increase resistance from the Conservative party given Ross’ recent comments. Balancing the priorities of the current public health crisis versus a push for a referendum is a tricky ground, and both parties will need to continue justifying their positions to the general public. Recent opinion polls show a slight majority supporting independence, meaning that the SNP and the Conservative party could use that to their advantage. For example, the Conservative party could continue highlighting the SNP leadership as a “party [over a] pandemic”. The SNP would point to the Brexit referendum outcome as a need for independence.
Economically, if Scotland takes the route of independence, that will give it more leeway to pursue economic agreements that the U.K. is not a part of or that Scotland wishes to be in. Brexit is a clear example since most Scottish voters voted against withdrawal. Regardless of the outcome, Scottish leadership mush consider short-term and long-term implications in both scenarios and explain to their constituencies the biggest strengths of their proposals. This would further engage voters rather than all parties involved accusing each other of betraying national interests.
In 2014, Scotland held an independence referendum in which a majority of the voters chose to remain with the U.K. As previously mentioned, there is now a small majority that supports independence according to recent opinion polls. Another factor in the changing perceptions was the Brexit vote, in which most of Scotland voted to remain the in E.U. while other U.K voters voted for an exit. This is the basis for Sturgeon’s argument, saying that the withdrawal “against their will” is a major reason to become independent from the U.K. Discussion among political groups for and against a new independence referendum is sure to continue, and with the possibility of the May election being postponed, this will intensify debates for both sides.
Sturgeon’s SNP has committed to “vigorously oppose” any legal challenge from the British government, event after the Court of Session in Edinburgh recently said “it was premature and hypothetical to challenge Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s power to block a new secession vote,” according to Reuters. In addition to this commitment, the SNP’s anticipated victory in May’s election to the Edinburgh parliament “on the promise of a referendum” would improve the prospects of one, despite it happening in the COVID era. Given the high likelihood of intense debate and legal challenges, it is crucial that the parties involved maintain dialogue and constant communication as to avoid last-minute surprises. It would also allow voters to see how their leaders interact given their promises. All sides have the right to pursue their goals, but communication at different levels (with voters and Scotland/U.K. leadership) will help in reaching a consensus.