Brexit strengthens argument for Scottish independence, but there is no clear path to holding a second referendum
Dods Monitoring's Andy Frain considers the likelihood of a second Scottish independence referendum.
A look at an electoral map of Great Britain following the 2019 General Election will tell at least one clear story. South of Hadrian’s Wall, the election was a good one for Boris Johnson and his Conservative party, winning an astonishing 359 seats in England & Wales.
The dominance of the SNP’s bright yellow across Scotland, however, stands in stark contrast to the deep blue Conservative sea below, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats were left licking their wounds following electoral humiliation. Under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP surged from 13 to 48 seats, nearing their historical high from 2015. A disciplined campaign focused on the twin constitutional battlegrounds of Brexit and a second independence referendum managed to strike back following the mini-unionist revival of 2017.
Outwardly, the SNP was devastated at the clear mandate the national result delivered for Johnson. The comfortable Conservative majority moves Brexit from the probable to the inevitable. Party luminaries swamped the airwaves in order to express their grief at the prospect of another five years of Tory rule. However, this belies an underlying truth – the result of the 2019 UK General Election is the best possible result for supporters of Scottish independence.
The State of Play
The SNP’s pro-Europeanism is sincere, but it is arguably secondary to the party’s support for Scottish independence – the cause for which the party was formed to advocate. Unfortunately for the SNP, the former and the latter were near incompatible in the short to medium term.
Picture a scenario, arguably the only other one possible going in to the election, where an SNP-backed Labour Party scraped into power and held a second Brexit referendum. A Remain vote in this referendum would, in theory, delight the Remain-supporting SNP leadership, whilst simultaneously removing the primary justification for holding a second independence referendum. The SNP’s reasoning for demanding a second “once-in-a-generation” IndyRef just 6 years after the first one rests on the fundamental change that Brexit brings – without it their argument would lack substance.
Brexit is happening however, and this gives vital legitimacy to the SNP’s calls for a second vote, given no constituency in Scotland voted Leave in 2016.
While much of Scotland defines as either “Yes” or “No”, there is a not insubstantial middle ground between strident nationalism and staunch unionism that could be swayed either way on the merits of a second vote. Current polling has both sides essentially neck and neck.
These voters will be a key target for both sides in the forthcoming constitutional wrangle between Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson. Both have so far focused on playing the hits over debuting any new material, in an effort to appeal to their respective bases.
What Happens Next
Sturgeon has campaigned heavily on the perceived betrayal of Brexit, “forcing Scotland out of the EU against its will”. Similarly, Johnson has repeated the phrase “Scotland voted No in 2014” but has so far failed to come up with a counter narrative to address the significant change in circumstances since then.
Over the next 18 months, expect this pattern to continue. Nicola Sturgeon promised her party a second referendum on independence once the shape of Brexit is clear, meaning she is likely to request a Section 30 Order once the Withdrawal Agreement Bill receives Royal Assent.
A Section 30 Order gives the Scottish Parliament extra powers that it doesn’t currently have, either temporarily or permanently, by altering the list of “reserved powers” in the original Scotland Act that made the Scottish Parliament. In this instance, Sturgeon would be requesting the same powers that were granted temporarily in order to hold the 2014 referendum.
Unlike 2014, however, Westminster is extremely unlikely to acquiesce to this request. Johnson knows the Scottish Conservative revival of recent years was one built on the foundations of unionism and neither his membership nor his voting base will be hospitable to any threat to that.
In truth, despite all the noise and fury from both sides on the issue, it is hard to see the Section 30 request, nor its rejection, shifting the dial on IndyRef 2 one way or another. Although neither Johnson nor Sturgeon would admit it, it is likely to be the 2021 Scottish Parliament election where the true battle will be fought.
If the pro-independence parties once again win a majority in Holyrood, the SNP’s mandate to request a second referendum becomes stronger and they will be emboldened to once again seek a Section 30 order.
Johnson may struggle to ignore a clear democratic majority in favour of a second vote and any rejection on his part may be perceived negatively by key swing voters. If Johnson does say no, however, the SNP has run out of legitimate levers for independence and the party’s future direction becomes foggier.
So far the independence debate in Scotland has been, perhaps contrary to public perception, remarkably cordial in nature. After 2021, there is a every possibility that the atmosphere becomes far more actively hostile, in the mould of relations between the Government of Catalonia and Spain.
There are other pieces in play, not least Alex Salmond’s upcoming court case and the twitching carcass of Scottish Labour, but it is reasonable to say that the next 18 months will see fundamental questions asked of the SNP, Boris Johnson and the strength of the UK’s union.