By Ryan Morrice
With Parliament suspended and the chaotic government led by Boris Johnson dominating the headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the changing political attitudes in Scotland. In July, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), proclaimed that “Scotland is heading inexorably towards independence”. Polling backs up this statement: a poll run by Lord Ashcroft in August put support for Scottish independence at 46% and against at 43%. The undecideds could easily swing a referendum on the issue to a clear majority for one side or the other—more on this later. Other recent polls paint a similar picture, with for and against Scottish Independence neck and neck. This uncertainty comes only five years after the matter was supposedly put to rest in a “once in a generation opportunity”, when the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence gave a majority of 55.3% against independence.
The 2014 referendum came about after the SNP won their first majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. Alex Salmond, then-First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP, led the “Yes” campaign (“Yes” in answer to the referendum question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”) to argue for Scottish independence. The campaign claimed that Scotland would be better off outside of the United Kingdom. The Better Together campaign argued the opposite, warning of the economic risks and dangers independence could bring, and the benefits of remaining in the Union. In an argument that appears particularly ironic now, they also warned that an independent Scotland could face difficulty in rejoining the EU.
Once the referendum results came through, the matter of independence was thought to have been put to rest for at least a decade or so, and that was that. Then came Brexit.
The trouble with Brexit is that in the 2016 referendum, while the UK as a whole voted to leave by 52%, in Scotland there was a clear majority of 62% to remain in the EU. This in itself may not have proved to be troublesome, were Brexit an orderly process that left life in Scotland, and in the Union, relatively unchanged. Unfortunately the opposite has happened. Politics in the UK parliament has become toxic: the Conservative party has become determined to ensure a hard or no-deal Brexit (which is strongly opposed in Scotland), and the persistent uncertainty over Brexit leaves voters and businesses alike losing faith in the political system.
This is important because the implicit message of the Better Together campaign was that a vote against independence was one for stability and security. It was a vote that would leave people’s lives unchanged and would leave Scotland still in the EU. And so it was this belief which was refuted by Brexit. It was common knowledge that there would likely be a referendum on European Union membership (David Cameron promised it a year before in 2013). But most of those who voted in 2014 to stay in the UK either did not consider the potential of this other referendum for political disruption, or assumed it would be inconsequential.
This has led to second doubts for many voters over independence, as shown in the polls. The large proportion of undecideds illustrates that a significant number of voters hold different views from in 2014. Back then, they voted against independence, preferring safety and stability over the risks of independence. But that choice is no longer so clear; the SNP have now run the Scottish Government for 12 years. Their record isn’t stellar, but it has shown them to be competent governors of Scotland. Compared against the state of Westminster, many voters may now perceive independence to be the safe option.
Furthermore, the parties opposed to independence are in a much weaker position to campaign against independence than they were five years ago. David Cameron was not much liked in Scotland, but he did appear respectable and competent. This is in contrast to Boris Johnson who is reviled by many in Scotland. Ruth Davidson, the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has also recently resigned. She led the Conservatives to their best results in Scotland since they were wiped out by Thatcher. Labour is only in a slightly better position: Jeremy Corbyn does not face the same contempt that Boris Johnson does, but neither does he hold much support. Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader, is unknown to almost two fifths of Scottish Labour supporters, as found by a poll in March this year.
However, the end of the Union is not yet nigh. As much as the independence movement has benefited from the Brexit crisis, they still do not have a clear majority. A soft Brexit (or, more wishfully, no Brexit) would help quash uncertainty over the current political crises. A return to the more sensible and polite politics that preceded Brexit would also help Scots regain more faith in Westminster, which still has significant control over Scotland.
On the other hand, support for Scottish independence will continue to grow if the current state of UK politics is not improved and Brexit not dealt with. And if there is a hard Brexit or no-deal Brexit (which thankfully appears to be off the table for now) then its economic consequences will mean support will quickly become a strong majority. The fate of the Union currently rests in the hands of the politicians in Westminster; their actions regarding Brexit in the near future will determine whether or not it prevails.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not represent the views of The St Andrews Economist.