Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has today announced that she will seek to deliver a second referendum on Scottish independence due to, in part, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Sturgeon has said that she will introduce a bill at Holyrood to hold a second referendum, before asking for a vote in the House of Commons on a Section 30 order that will allow the vote to be held. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has accused the SNP of “tunnel vision” when it comes to the issue of independence, but the move by the First Minister is incredibly interesting to me in terms of timing and strategy.
Other party leaders have been out talking about the prospect of a second vote. Late last week Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that he was “fine” with the concept of another referendum and that Labour MPs wouldn’t be compelled to vote against Sturgeon’s Section 30 order. The Scottish Green Party Co-convener Patrick Harvie has said that the party will back the SNP in Holyrood, which is important as this would give the bill a majority in the Scottish Parliament. Conversely, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie has said that he would vote against another referendum, and his comments to the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme imply that he will lobby the Westminster Lib Dems to vote against another plebiscite.
As I said in the introduction, the timing of this vote is interesting. The decision to hold the vote in either Autumn 2018 or Spring 2019 will allow pro-independence forces to put their case at a time when the most information about the negotiated Brexit deal will be known. Given the pre-negotiation rhetoric, and the desire for the EU to make an example of the UK, it appears that Theresa May will be in receipt of a so-called ‘hard Brexit’. This will alienate a large number of Scottish voters who are to the left of such a deal.
The timing is also important in strategic terms. The Tories are currently dealing with: Brexit negotiations, and the Conservative Party’s infighting as a result; the ongoing uncertainty over Northern Ireland; the NHS crisis; a Budget which has been one of the most negatively received in living memory; and I could go on. The prospect of a government north of the border working to secede from the state that you are in charge of will put even more pressure on Theresa May’s government.
Further, since the first Scottish independence referendum the political dynamics of the country have changed. The Labour Party’s support has collapsed, the Lib Dems have remained unpopular, and the Scottish Green Party have been making a grassroots case for independence that is not-rooted in nationalism. The Trade Union Congress has also been openly warning that a hard Brexit may threaten jobs and workers’ rights, and this may lead some trade unionists to back independence, especially if Scotland intends to rejoin the EU.
Furthermore, demographically speaking independence has an advantage. Analysis of the last referendum shows that young people overwhelmingly backed independence whereas older voters backed the reverse. By Spring 2019, which I believe Sturgeon will choose in lieu of Autumn 2018, this younger demographic, who had been politicised by the referendum vote, will be able to vote whereas some of the older voters will have died. Also, if 16 and 17-year-olds can vote again, it is possible that these people will back independence in similar numbers.
The political problem for the government is clear. Do they say yes or no? Polls have shown that there has been some movement towards independence. From the government’s perspective, it would be very risky to allow Scotland to have another referendum. But it is conceivable that that those who have switched sides could be won back. If, however, the Tories blocked Scotland from having another vote, especially after Holyrood would have voted for such a bill, pro-independence attitudes would be hardened.
The referendum campaign would have some similarities and some differences to 2014. It is highly likely that the question on the ballot paper will be the same. Furthermore, the issues involved in the campaign will be the same. Trident will remain an important issue, as will the currency question, economic prosperity with regards to oil, and speculation about the future of the monarchy just to name a few.
However some things will be very different. The political differences between Scotland and England have become abundantly clear in the last few years, whether this is in regards to the 2015 general election or the EU referendum. Also, whilst Trident is still an issue, the Tory majority in the House of Commons will inevitably support Trident’s renewal, especially given the number of Labour MPs who will support the government. Third and final, the reduced price of oil has hit the economic case for independence and could be the Yes campaign’s Achilles heel. Addressing this change in circumstance will be key in putting the case for secession.
To conclude, I believe Sturgeon is correct to call a second referendum and by putting the potential vote in the time period that she has, she has given herself the upper hand. Not only will this give the pro-independence campaign momentum moving forward, it allows the Chekhovian drama that will be the Brexit negotiations to play out in the context of Scotland having an escape hatch. Also, given the political changes that have occurred since September 2014, Sturgeon and the Yes campaign can point out this vast change and make the cogent case for self-government.
Independence is by no means in the bag, so for supporters of secession grassroots activists armed with facts will be the key to getting over the line. A lot can happen between now and Spring 2019, but if independence is to be achieved it will have to be in that vote. In my view this vote is justified on the grounds that the situation today and September 2014, but I don’t see what constitutional change could happen in the near future to justify another such vote. If independence is to be achieved it will have to be done in the next few years. Time to get to work