The seemingly inevitable prospect of a second referendum on independence was finally confirmed in a speech by Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland. The Scottish government will begin preparing for a referendum sometime in late 2018 or early 2019, as Brexit negotiations unfold.
A second referendum became likely the moment the result of the EU referendum was confirmed. The devolution settlement that has endured since 1999 was always going to be put under considerable strain when Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU, while the UK as a whole voted to leave.
In her speech, Sturgeon was at pains to point to out that, despite attempting to engage and persuade, the UK government had more or less dismissed her appeals for Scotland to be allowed to stay in the European single market after Brexit. Such a prospect was never likely anyway, but the incorrigible nature of the UK government’s position on the matter has, according to Sturgeon, left the Scottish government with no choice.
From the point of view of the Scottish government, a referendum on independence should now be held towards the end of the Brexit negotiations. That would, it is suggested, give the people of Scotland the chance to weigh up their options with the maximum amount of information available before the UK actually leaves the EU.
Sturgeon said she will ask the UK government to push a section 30 order, which would hand Scotland the right to hold a referendum. There is clear precedent for this: the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement between the UK and Scottish governments, which set out the broad terms of the 2014 referendum, preceded the official approval of the section 30 order in February 2013.
There is nothing to suggest that the technical process of holding a second referendum will be any different this time around. Politically, there may well be some stumbling blocks – though it would be counterproductive for the UK government to block a referendum entirely.
The UK government was accused last time of giving the Scottish administration carte blanche to decide when the referendum would be held and set the question on the ballot. That said, wise counsel would suggest too much interference in the second referendum could simply boost support for independence.
Is everyone ready?
When it comes to campaigning, the pro-independence movement is in a far healthier position than its opponent. Some elements have never ceased activity. Groups such as Common Weal and Women for Independence are still very active campaign organisations. The new media scene has also grown since 2014, with outlets such as CommonSpace now playing a key role in Scotland’s media landscape. It won’t take long for the pro-independence movement to return to full capacity again.
The pro-UK side, however, is in a different situation. Scottish Labour was badly tarnished by its role in Better Together, the campaign that was on the winning side in 2014. Since then, Scottish Labour has been absolutely decimated as a political force in Scotland and its poll ratings ahead of local elections in May are abysmal. Better Together Mk.II has some serious thinking to do about how to organise and who to select as its figurehead.
The polls have shown a slight increase towards Yes since the last referendum. However, the latest poll of polls still puts No in the lead with about 52%. That’s well within the margin of statistical error, so for all intents and purposes, the current state of play is neck-and-neck. This is very encouraging for the pro-independence movement since it started from a much lower base last time around. However, it remains to be seen if it can persuade enough women and older voters to back independence – two groups that voted No in 2014.
The Brexit vote has transformed the independence debate in a number of ways. Whereas staying part of the UK was framed as the safe, stable choice last time around, the same can no longer be said with any real conviction. The decision to leave the EU has triggered all kinds of uncertainties and unknowns.
On the other hand, there are still serious questions around the fiscal and economic case for independence. The drop in the price of oil and the subsequent collapse in revenues to an estimated £60m as a result has left Scotland with a very high estimated fiscal deficit, were it independent today, of over 10%, compared to the UK’s fiscal deficit of 4%. The Scottish economy has also been significantly lagging behind the UK economy for quite some time. Any vote for independence would require serious and stark choices to be made on public expenditure in Scotland.
What’s more, the Scottish government will have to make plans for the future of its currency in the event of independence. Assuming it wants to remain a member of the EU, Scotland will have to sign up to the EU’s exchange rate mechanism in anticipation of the adoption of the euro. In the meantime, it would probably have to adopt its own currency and set up its own central bank. That process is perfectly possible but would probably have significant implications for the country’s credit rating when borrowing funds on international markets.
What to expect now
Last time, there was an official campaign period in the run up to the referendum. In reality, however, the campaign started a couple of years before that. Whatever your constitutional preferences, Scotland is back in campaign mode and the referendum to come will unquestionably dominate public life once again.
Meanwhile, the Brexit process will occur simultaneously. The future is therefore extremely uncertain, although once the Brexit negotiations between the UK government and the EU get properly underway there may be greater clarity as to what sort of impact that is having on opinion in Scotland.