Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Scottish independence is the political movement for Scotland to become a sovereign state, independent from the United Kingdom.
A referendum on the issue was held in 2014, where Scotland voted to stay in the UK by a margin of 55% to 45%.
The issue has never fully subsided however, and recent events appear to have shifted more Scots towards favouring independence.
Indeed, a recent YouGov poll, excluding those who are not sure, shows that 53% of people support independence compared to 47% who do not. Incidentally, this is YouGov’s largest ever lead for the pro-independence side.
This guide will examine two events that have been seen to increase support for Scottish independence: Brexit and COVID-19.
However, while support is increasing, the chance of Scotland leaving the UK in the near future remains low, though not impossible. COVID-19 and Brexit do not necessarily clear the path for separation, and the Scottish National Party would have to overcome significant obstacles to achieve their goal of independence.
Scotland as a whole is vehemently against leaving the European Union (EU). Indeed, 62% of Scottish voters voted to remain in 2016, compared with 38% who voted to leave. Scotland’s strong ties to the EU go back decades, with the EU having ploughed money into areas where coal mines and steelworks had closed.
From a purely economic standpoint, trade between the EU and Scotland is worth more than £16 billion, growing at a faster rate than any other export market. As a no-deal Brexit looks increasingly likely, it is no surprise that support for independence has increased. In fact, it plays right into the narrative that Scotland is being bullied by the rest of the union, while forcing voters to choose between their unionist and European identity.
YouGov estimate that the growing support for independence is driven by the 30% of those who voted against independence in 2014, and then voted to remain in 2016, now saying that they would vote for the idea. It appears there are certainly some Scottish voters who would prefer to be closer to the EU than the rest of the UK.
However, this does not necessarily mean that Brexit clears the path for Scottish independence. Scotland would find joining the EU difficult as it is unlikely that they would join on Scottish terms. The EU would require Scotland to join the Euro and reduce any budget deficits to 3% of GDP or lower (Scotland’s current deficit is allegedly 7%). This would probably mean spending cuts (austerity) – which would not be popular with Scottish voters.
Moreover, if the UK left with no deal, they would no longer be part of the European single market and customs union, while if Scotland join the EU, they would be part of this trading bloc. This would presumably require a system of checks on goods crossing the border between Scotland and England, creating a barrier between Scotland and its largest trading partner. Scottish secretary Alistair Jack has stated that trade between Scotland and the UK is worth “three times more” than that with the EU, while pro-union group Scottish Business UK argue that Scottish independence would be at least eight times as damaging to the Scottish economy as a no-deal Brexit.
Pushing this narrative on the economy is likely to be receptive among the Scottish electorate in any potential referendum, with 42% of Scots already thinking the country would be worse off economically if it went independent. As money becomes more scarce in these uncertain times, economic issues are likely to be at the forefront of Scottish voters’ minds.
While every leader around the world has found the Covid-19 pandemic a great challenge, some have argued that Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, has dealt with this crisis fairly effectively. Indeed, a poll taken during the height of the pandemic showed that 78% of Scots thought the Scottish government were handling the crisis well, compared with 34% who said the same for the UK government.
Whether this is borne out in fact is debatable. A Financial Times article from June showed that Scotland has had one of the highest death rates among comparable European countries. Although Sturgeon and her supporters may argue that Scotland’s death rate is still lower than England’s, the lower death rate could be explained by the country’s relatively low population density and distance from London, where coronavirus spread fastest before the UK-wide lockdown.
Indeed, it has been argued by some that Scotland is benefiting from a ‘halo effect’ i.e. everything that goes well in Scotland is attributed to Holyrood (the Scottish Parliament) and everything that goes badly is attributed to Westminster.
Yet, in the eyes of most Scots, Nicola Sturgeon has proved more competent at dealing with a national crisis than Boris Johnson, going her own way on issues such as when to open the economy. Nicola Sturgeon has been trying to present this crisis as the competent SNP versus the incompetent UK government, arguing that Scotland should rid themselves of the shackles imposed by the UK and forge their own path. This view seems to have gained some credence, with support for Scottish independence increasing during the crisis.
However, like the Brexit debate, it is not cut-and-dried as to whether COVID-19 has helped push Scotland towards independence. The UK government has sent in excess of £10 billion to Scotland during the crisis and, with the current budget deficit Scotland faces, there is an argument that an independent Scotland would not have been able to deliver this financial outlay. Additionally, a weaker economy could potentially strengthen the pro-Union cause, increasing Scotland’s reliance on the rest of the UK.
Is Scottish independence likely?
In the near future, Scottish independence remains unlikely, although pressure is mounting. Sturgeon may have currently shelved plans for legislation to prepare for a second referendum in order to focus on COVID-19. However, the SNP leader has pledged to publish draft legislation for a new vote before next May’s Scottish Parliament elections.
Due to devolution rules, the UK must agree to this referendum through a vote in Westminster, with this being the part that seems doubtful. Boris Johnson has ruled out granting Scotland a second referendum, while the Conservatives unapologetic unionism has led to the party gaining electoral ground in the country that they will not want to lose. Yet doubtful does not mean impossible, with a big victory for the SNP in the next Scottish Parliament election strengthening the democratic argument for a second referendum. Perhaps, given mounting pressure, Johnson would have to cave.
Even if Scotland are granted a second referendum, it is not a given that they would win. Although the polls currently show a narrow majority supporting independence, it is still extremely close. The pro-Union side can put forward a strong case for Scotland to remain in the UK, while the UK’s experience with referenda shows that poll leads before a campaign do not necessarily translate into victory.
What is clear is that much work still needs to be done before the SNP sees an independent Scotland. However, with just enough pressure applied to Westminster and the correct political climate, you would be foolish to completely rule out the SNP fighting their way to independence in the not so distant future.