Scotland’s Push for Independence Vote Puts Leader in Dilemma

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is keeping up pressure on the U.K. government for another independence referendum, yet she also faces the task of keeping her party patiently united behind her approach.

As the Scottish National Party holds its annual conference this weekend, the 50-year-old leader’s position could hardly look stronger: there’s now clear majority support for breaking away from the rest of the U.K. and the SNP has a seemingly unassailable lead in the polls before May’s Scottish Parliamentary election. Her handling of the coronavirus pandemic compared with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, boosted her own popularity.

The dilemma for Sturgeon is that, under the current constitutional arrangements, it’s London rather than her administration in Edinburgh that has the power to call an independence vote, and Johnson has refused. Some in the SNP have said Scotland doesn’t need approval for a legal vote and are pressuring Sturgeon to push ahead regardless.

Sturgeon said in interviews this week she wants a second referendum “in the earlier part of the next parliament,” but declined to give a specific date. Some in her party are pushing for an earlier vote, including Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader in the U.K. Parliament who said Scotland should hold one next year. 

Scotland’s Push for Independence Vote Puts Leader in Dilemma

“Let us demonstrate—with cool heads and with patient persuasion—that Scotland is ready to take its place in the global family of independent nations,” Sturgeon will say in opening remarks to the conference, according to advance excerpts of her speech. 

While British politics has been dominated by Brexit, Covid-19 and an economic meltdown, how to deal with the question of Scotland’s future is increasingly becoming more urgent. Officials inside Johnson’s Conservative Party are war gaming how to counter the SNP’s demands, and his government has been trying to play up financial and political commitments to Scotland.

A key theme of the SNP conference, which Sturgeon is scheduled to address again on Monday, is how to keep momentum behind their cause at such a critical time for the U.K. The problem for Johnson is that he has helped strengthen the SNP’s hand, according to John Curtice, the U.K.’s most prominent psephologist.

Scotland voted against leaving the European Union and protracted talks on a post-Brexit trade deal have fueled support for the nation of 5.5 million to call time on the three-centuries-old union with England and Wales.

Leaked comments from Johnson this month calling the transfer of power to Scotland “a disaster” only helped the nationalist narrative. Under that devolution process, Scotland has power over transportation, education, health and some finance. 

Scotland’s Push for Independence Vote Puts Leader in Dilemma

“Johnson has played an absolutely essential role in stimulating support for independence in Scotland,” said Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

For Scottish nationalists, Brexit is a “perfect illustration” of the view that the democratic wishes of Scotland are being overturned, he said. Combined with perceptions about the handling of the pandemic, that’s “the reason why the union is seemingly in serious trouble,” Curtice said.

At the last independence referendum, in September 2014, Scots voted 55% to 45% to remain in the U.K., in part because of an agreement by the government at the time to cede more power to Edinburgh over such things as taxation. The latest polls show support for independence is now comfortably above 50%.

A pro-independence majority in next spring’s Scottish election would mean the U.K. government could no longer rely on its position that the 2014 referendum was a “once in a generation” vote, according to Jess Sargeant, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government.

“There is a risk that if the U.K. government just looks like it’s saying no, that it looks like its resisting the will of the Scottish people, then that might possibly drive support for independence,” she said.

Scotland’s Push for Independence Vote Puts Leader in Dilemma

The SNP, which has run the semi-autonomous government since 2007, reckons the U.K. ultimately will have no choice but to grant another vote. In the meantime, Sturgeon is waiting for more political dominoes to stack up.

But then the issue of what an independent Scotland might look like comes back into play. The country is facing its deepest recession in living memory and any referendum campaign would have a backdrop of some stark numbers. A report in August showed Scotland’s budget deficit would have been 8.6% of economic output if it had to fend for itself, more than three times that of the U.K.’s.

Allowing a second vote on independence could put the focus back on the questions that succeeded in keeping Scotland part of the U.K. six years ago, according to Curtice.

“We’ve not really been debating the issues about independence in the course of the last two years, so the change in opinion has in some sense occurred in a vacuum,” he said. “When that debate is engaged, who knows in which direction public opinion might shift?”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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