Why Scotland’s Road to an Independence Vote Is Rocky
A demonstrator holds a Scottish national flag while marching during an All Under One Banner march for Scottish independence in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photographer: Emily Macinnes/Bloomberg)

Why Scotland’s Road to an Independence Vote Is Rocky

Scottish independence is back on the agenda just seven years after a referendum that saw it defeated by 55% to 45%. It’s been revived by the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016 and its acrimonious departure in 2020. While England favored pulling out, Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay, and independence could open the door to readmission. Beyond Brexit, Scotland has its own distinctive culture and a nationalist tradition that has flourished despite the 1707 Act of Union between the two countries. Now that three-century-old alliance is under threat.

1. What’s happening now?

Scotland is holding an election on May 6 that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has described as the most important in her country’s history. The vote, part of wider local elections across the U.K., could have consequences that reach far beyond the nation of 5.5 million people if her pro-independence Scottish National Party succeeds in winning a majority. While some powers in areas such as education and health were devolved to Scotland when the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999, that has not quelled demands for fuller autonomy. Polls show Scotland’s future as part of the union is the top priority among Scottish voters when deciding which party to vote for, and the election is being set up as a de facto vote on independence.

2. How big a factor is Brexit?

Huge. Scotland voted by 62% to 38% to remain in the EU in 2016. Only two years earlier, claims that Scotland would have to apply to rejoin the EU if it left the U.K. undermined nationalist momentum. Now Brexit has allowed Sturgeon to argue that there’s been a fundamental change in circumstances. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s delivery of a “hard Brexit” -- taking Britain out of the EU’s single market –- has fueled grievances, hitting Scotland’s fishing industry particularly hard, while the U.K.’s Internal Market Act, which allows the British government to override the Edinburgh parliament, has led to accusations of a powergrab. Johnson’s bumbling, upper-class personality has made him unpopular among Scots, who identify more readily with Sturgeon’s directness. Leaked comments by Johnson, who called devolution “a disaster,” have only reinforced those perceptions.

3. What do the polls say?

Sturgeon’s SNP is likely to be the largest party in the 129-seat parliament after the election, but whether it will win an outright majority is still uncertain. Opinion polls by Ipsos MORI and Opinium have suggested the SNP could secure even more than the 69 seats it won in 2011, which Sturgeon would claim is the clear mandate she needs for a second referendum. But perhaps the biggest threat is from other pro-independence parties rather than those wanting to shore up the union. Her one-time mentor and now political rival Alex Salmond is leading the newly formed Alba party in an attempt to take advantage of Scotland’s mixed electoral system, intended to make the Edinburgh parliament more representative. Then there’s the Green Party, which polls show is enjoying a jump in support.

Why Scotland’s Road to an Independence Vote Is Rocky

4. How does the voting system work?

Each person gets two votes on polling day, one for their local constituency lawmaker and one for a party slate in the larger region in which they live. There are 73 constituency lawmakers and a further 56 elected on the regional list. Results for the regions are weighted in favor of parties that are less successful at constituency level, in a bid to ensure fairer representation of minority interests. That’s a system that makes it harder for the SNP, or any successful constituency party, to gain an overall majority in parliament.

5. How could that play out?

Alba is only standing on the regional list. Salmond claims it’s a way of increasing support for a pro-independence “super-majority,” but there’s a risk it could damage the SNP’s chances of winning an outright majority. The Greens, which supported the last minority SNP government, could be the main beneficiary if pro-independence voters use their list vote tactically, according to Emily Gray, managing director of Ipsos MORI Scotland. On independence, polls show the outcome of a referendum right now would be too close to call.

6. Could Scotland get a vote anyway?

The last referendum in 2014 was only held after former Prime Minister David Cameron transferred the necessary powers to Edinburgh, allowing Scots to vote in a legally watertight referendum. Johnson has so far refused to consider that, arguing that the vote then was “once in a generation.” He’s said he won’t grant a second vote now, irrespective of the outcome of May’s election, arguing that the focus should be on recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Sturgeon wants a referendum in the early part of the next parliamentary session, if the pandemic permits.

7. Could Scotland hold its own referendum?

The U.K. government says no and Sturgeon said she’s committed to a legal one. The Scottish leader seems determined not to follow the route taken by Catalan separatists, who held an illegal vote on leaving Spain in 2017. That said, Sturgeon’s SNP appears ready to force the issue if Johnson keeps saying no. Her government has published draft legislation outlining a path to another referendum, and some in her party are suggesting Scotland could hold an advisory vote and force the U.K. to challenge it in court.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg article on Johnson facing a battle to keep Scotland as the Brexit deal shows scars.
  • A story on Brexit Britain’s ability to survive.
  • An opinion poll by YouGov on the election.
  • A New York Times report on the feud threatening Scotland’s drive for independence.
  • A Bloomberg Opinion column by Niall Ferguson on Scottish independence.

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