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Scotland: Why May election is crucial for independence movement, and the UK – podcast

Jeff J Mitchell/Pool via REUTERS
Nicola Sturgeon wants to use a mandate at the May 6 elections to argue for a second independence referendum.

In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, as Scotland prepares to vote in landmark parliamentary elections on May 6, we explore why the question of independence from the UK is dominating the debate. And a team of researchers working with fruit flies, has discovered a biological switch that can turn neuroplasticity on and off in the brain. What might that mean?

It’s been seven years since Scotland voted to remain in the UK in the 2014 independence referendum. At the time, it was billed as a once-in-a-generation vote, but now Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, argues that the UK’s Brexit from the European Union is a change significant enough to warrant a second referendum. Meanwhile, support has been growing for independence over the past few years.

Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) is the largest pro-independence group. If pro-independence parties hold a majority in the Scottish parliament after the May 6 election – Sturgeon will ask the UK government in Westminster, led by Boris Johnson, for a second referendum on Scottish independence. But he’s unlikely to agree.

In this episode, we speak to three experts to explain what’s at stake and what could happen next. Kezia Dugdale, is director of the John Smith Centre and a lecturer in public policy at the University of Glasgow, as well as a former leader of the Scottish Labour Party. She explains that a person’s stance on independence is “still the biggest dominating factor over how you will vote in party-political terms” in Scotland. Dugdale predicts that if there is a pro-independence majority, but Johnson’s government refuses to grant Scotland permission to hold a second referendum, “there’ll be a lot of Punch and Judy-style back and forth”. But she says that every time the UK government says no it will work in the SNP’s favour because, “it reaffirms everything they tell the electorate about the UK government not observing the will of the people of Scotland”.

Read more: 'Brexit has changed people's minds on independence': Q&A with Kezia Dugdale, former Scottish Labour leader

Darren Nyatanga, a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool, where he’s researching the constitutional impacts of Brexit on the UK union, explains the process through which a second referendum could happen. He says the referendum’s legitimacy is vital, particularly given the SNP’s wish for an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU. “If the EU does not recognise the legitimacy of independence,” he says, then its unlikely they will be forthcoming in “accepting them as a member state”.

And economist Graeme Roy, dean of external engagement at the College of Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow, sets out the economic arguments used by both sides in the independence debate. Roy says that a lot has changed economically for Scotland since the 2014 referendum, particularly due to falling revenues from North Sea oil. “That really matters in a Scottish context,” he says, because it has higher public expenditure than the rest of the UK, “so oil revenues would have been one way to help it support that.”

For our next story, we hear about some new research into neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change its structure. The brains of young animals can change more easily than adults – which is why, for example, kids can learn languages more easily than adults. Many diseases are caused by to little or too much neuroplasticity – and being able to turn it off and on has obvious medical benefits.

New research published recently by Sarah Ackerman, postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Neuroscience and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, University of Oregon, and her team, on their research using fruit flies, looked into what controls these changes. The goal is to help fight diseases, but this work could also potentially unlock the superpowered learning that comes with a malleable brain. We talk to her about what she’s found.

Read more: Astrocyte cells in the fruit fly brain are an on-off switch that controls when neurons can change and grow

And Moina Spooner, commissioning editor at The Conversation in Nairobi, Kenya, gives us her recommended reads for the week.

The Conversation Weekly is produced by Mend Mariwany and Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom. or via email on You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here.

A transcript of this episode is available here.

News clips in this episode are from BBC News, ITV, Sky News, Channel 4 News, The Telegraph and CBS News.

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