The quest for Scottish independence

Image Credit: The Scottish Government

Nessa Denihan examines the future of Scottish Independence in the wake of Brexit.

In what was hailed as a once in a generation event in 2014, the people of Scotland voted on the question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ EU membership was a considerable talking point in the run-up to the referendum. The anti-independence 'Better Together' campaign was effective in illustrating the benefits associated with membership of larger unions like the UK and the EU. It also played into voters’ doubts by arguing that Scotland would be required to apply for EU membership should the referendum pass, which was disputed by the pro-independence 'Yes Scotland' campaign. It cited claims, which have since been refuted, that the Spanish government would block an independent Scotland’s accession to the EU.

Although by no means the sole concern of the Scottish electorate, the perceived advantages of EU membership ultimately appeared to have been persuasive. The referendum was defeated by a 55% majority. In the almost 7 years since this vote, the UK passed the Brexit referendum and left the EU. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Due to unique geopolitical considerations, the status of Northern Ireland became a focal point of the subsequent Brexit negotiations between the EU and the UK. In contrast, there seems to be a growing sentiment among Scottish nationalists that Scotland’s concerns were largely disregarded in the Brexit process. In the year following from the 2016 referendum relations between Westminster and Holyrood have become increasingly fraught.

In this highly charged context, the debate around Scottish independence has been reignited. Although some argue that a second referendum would undermine the expressed will of the Scottish people, a compelling case can be made that Brexit amounts to such a fundamental change as to necessitate the independence question be reconsidered. Scottish First Minister and leader of the dominant Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, will contest the next Scottish parliamentary election in May on a platform seeking another referendum in 2021. 

This issue does not exist in a vacuum. A successful referendum in Scotland would draw even more attention to the question of Irish unity. The Good Friday Agreement provides the principle of a unification referendum does not provide any further detail on this front. The conclusions were drawn by the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, which has been established to consider this, will be extremely relevant in any future discussions on this issue. It is also worth noting that as a geographically peripheral economy with a strong focus on foreign direct investment, the Republic could face strong competition from an independent Scotland. 

A second Scottish referendum would also be of particular interest to those involved in separatist movements in Catalonia, the Basque Country and other European regions. In October 2017, the Catalan parliament defied the Spanish government and the Spanish constitutional court by holding an unauthorised independence referendum. This referendum - the outcome of which is disputed - is marred in controversy. Law enforcement was deployed to suppress the vote and shut down polling stations. Both the violence perpetrated by police against voters and the imprisonment of pro-independence leaders shocked many. The Catalan experience indicates that although a successful referendum would probably result in a velvet divorce between Scotland and the rest of the UK, other separatist endeavours may not be so amicable.

The path to a second referendum is not readily apparent. Although opinion polls have consistently demonstrated that support for independence is above 50%, there is considerable disagreement among supporters as to the timing of a potential second referendum. More pressingly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, once described as the ‘single biggest recruitment sergeant’ for the independence movement, has flatly rejected the possibility of a second referendum. Sturgeon has not precluded the possibility of taking the British government to court to test whether its permission is required to hold another referendum. The SNP is no stranger to embarking upon such constitutional challenges. The landmark case taken in response to Boris Johnson’s infamous decision to prorogue parliament was led by SNP justice spokeswoman Joanne Cherry QC. 

An unanticipated threat has recently emerged in the shape of Sturgeon’s erstwhile mentor, Alex Salmond, which is somewhat ironic considering he was the First Minister during the 2014 independence referendum. Salmond claims Sturgeon misled Holyrood about her government’s handling of harassment allegations against him. Sturgeon’s husband and CEO of the SNP, Peter Murrell, is also embroiled in this controversy. In December 2020, Murrell provided seemingly contradictory evidence to a parliamentary committee set-up to investigate the Scottish government’s botched investigation. Sturgeon’s opponents will hope this affair will puncture both support for the SNP and the broader independence movement. This controversy may represent a significant test to the coherence of the independence movement. Should the fall-out cause significant damage to Sturgeon’s integrity, separatists will be at a crossroads. Can their vision for Scotland’s future supersede all else, or will Sturgeon’s shortcomings jeopardise an opportunity which is within grasp?