Since the EU Referendum four years ago, the proposition of another independence referendum in Scotland has always been a topic of conversation. The vote on 23 June 2016 has had huge significance for the whole of the United Kingdom, with Brexit finally taking place earlier this year after long periods of British political party divisions on the subject. However, Scotland in particular has come out of it in a completely new political climate. Along with Northern Ireland, the country voted decisively to remain in the EU, by a margin of 62% to 38%. This result is made all the more emphatic due to every single Scottish council area voting by majority to remain. However, this did not reflect the overall national picture, as the UK voted narrowly for Brexit by 52% as opposed to 48% for staying in the EU. In response, the new Conservative government at the time under Theresa May triggered Article 50, the process marking the exit, in March 2017, and although this was delayed due to parliamentary gridlock in Westminster, on 31 January this year, the UK formally broke away from the European block.
This national picture is at odds with the situation in Scotland. Indeed, since its national vote in the EU Referendum was overwhelmingly opposed to the UK wide result, it was not surprising that Nicola Sturgeon addressed the media in Edinburgh on the day after with a clear message: ‘Scotland faces the prospect of being taken out of the EU against its will.’ She declared this in turn this makes the chances of a Second Independence Referendum ‘highly likely.’ Fast forward a few years, and now this seems more likely than ever. For a start, we have already had another two General Elections. The June 2017 General Election in Scotland once again yielded a clear majority of SNP MPs with 35 elected candidates out of 59 seats, despite a significant drop from their success in the May 2015 General Election. But in the most recent election last December, the SNP romped home once again, nearly matching their 2015 performance, taking 48 out of 59 seats. They also were by far the largest party in the Scottish Parliament Elections in May 2016, taking 63 seats with their nearest challengers the Scottish Conservatives taking 31 seats. Those in support of independence argue that these mandates mean that another independence referendum should take place soon.
This view is also supported by recent opinion polls. John Curtice, the leading pollster in the UK, recently wrote that ‘never before have the foundations of public support for the Union looked so weak’. Looking at the data, it is clear to see why. Since June of this year, support for ‘Yes’ has now been ahead in six consecutive polls and the gap between ‘No’ appears to be rising. Four polls in fact put this lead now at seven percent or above, with Panelbase in having a poll of 50% to 43% twice and now 51% to 42% and Savanta ComRes at 49% to 42%. However, these current figures must be viewed in light of the Covid pandemic, as often voters rally round national leaders in times of crisis. Yet, there is no doubt that pressure is building for another independence referendum because Brexit has fundamentally changed the UK political landscape. One of the arguments the SNP put forward in their manifesto for the Scottish Parliament Elections was that the Scottish Government maintains the right to hold another referendum if there is a ‘material change’ in UK circumstances. Brexit is a material change.
However, the other side of this argument does have a case too. The UK Government along with the Scottish Conservatives maintain that the previous independence vote, held on 18 September 2014, was legally binding, fair and decisive. It was supposed to be ‘once in a generation’, with both sides respecting the result, as mentioned in the Edinburgh Agreement. Six years is not long in politics, and in no way does it represent a generation. We also know from past experience that referendums are divisive. It took time to heal the scars from the EU Referendum, and another independence vote would likely do the same thing. Whilst Brexit also currently does represent great economic uncertainty, it will give the UK a new direction which in the near future the four nations should come together towards. As the Prime Minister said in his letter rejecting a call for another referendum earlier this year, ‘it is time that we all worked to bring the whole of the United Kingdom together and unleash the potential of this great country.’
In summary, the whole independence debate is between two opposing claims of legitimacy. On the one hand, supporters of independence have electoral results and opinion polls to suggest that public opinion in Scotland is now in support of a second vote. On the other, the opposition claim that the first vote was ‘once in a generation’ and the issue will soon become a ‘neverendum’, similar to referendums held in Quebec, where the losing side keeps going until they get the right result. However, whilst the UK Government ultimately holds the balance of power, blocking a referendum continuously is unsustainable. This was tried with regards to devolution in Scotland and eventually it gave way. Expect something similar to happen again here. A referendum should happen within the next five years, provided that public opinion keeps its current position. A key turning point could well be the Scottish Parliament elections to be held in May next year. The current polling indicates that the SNP are once again on track for a clear victory, with a recent YouGov Poll putting them at 57%, Labour at 14%, Conservatives at 20%, and Lib Dems at 8%. In the manifesto, a call for a second vote will most likely be made clear. Should the SNP succeed, this in turn will increase pressure on Westminster. It will be interesting to see how this issue develops from then onwards; the UK government cannot continue to block referendums which have reasonable grounds to occur.
The views in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club