The Second Scottish Independence Referendum: A Dozen Quick Thoughts

The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced this morning that she will ask the Scottish Parliament to start the procedure for a second Scottish independence referendum. She said she wanted it to take place between the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2019.

  1. Ladbrokes instantly made a vote for independence the favourite to win. The bookies and pollsters got the 2015 UK General Election, the 2016 Brexit Referendum and the 2016 US Presidential Election wrong. They are not, of course, foredoomed to failure, but their recent track record has not been great.


  1. Ms Sturgeon said her preferred timing was before Brexit has been completed because otherwise it would be “too late” for Scotland to choose to remain in the EU. But if Brexit takes three years after the referendum, the process of untangling centuries of the UK would take at least two years – meaning that an independent Scotland could not exist before 2020, and certainly not before March 2019. As the EU has confirmed already today, the comments from former Commission head Mr Barroso in 2014 are still in place: an independent Scotland would have to apply to join the EU from outside. That would also involve a requirement to join the Euro in due course.


  1. The political position for Ms Sturgeon is much stronger than was the case for Mr Salmond in 2014. The pro-Union parties have been scattered to the four winds, with each of them reduced to just 1 MP each in 2015. It is not clear which, if any, Scottish Labour figure would step up to take the role which Alistair Darling did then. The independence cause started then at around 30% in the polls. They start now in the high forties (with one recent poll putting them at 50%).


  1. The economic case, however, is much weaker. The SNP’s argument for independence two years ago was predicated on the oil price remaining indefinitely above $100. It is currently struggling to stay above $50. Further, the SNP will ask Scottish voters explicitly to choose the Single European Market over the Single United Kingdom Market – even though the latter is worth six times as much to Scotland as the former.


  1. The UK Prime Minister seems to have been caught on the hop by today’s announcement, having expected to focus this week on securing final Parliamentary approval for Brexit. Downing Street issued a statement which condemned the idea of a second Scottish referendum so soon after one which the Scottish Government itself called “a once in a generation” event – but notably did not address the question of whether Westminster will give, as statute requires, approval for this further poll.


  1. Mrs May will be under pressure from many in her party not to grant approval for a referendum, or at least not one until after Brexit has been completed. Catalonia went ahead with an independence referendum in November 2014, despite the denial of approval by both the Spanish Government and the Spanish Supreme Court, and while the verdict was strongly pro-independence, the low (42%) turnout discredited the result. On the other hand, others advising Mrs May believe that London being seen to block a referendum would simply incite anti-English feeling north of the border.


  1. In the Scottish Parliament, by contrast, Ms Sturgeon will get her symbolic vote for a referendum next week. Although the SNP (just) lost their outright majority at the Scottish Parliamentary elections of 2016, the Scottish Greens have already said today that they will vote to support the call for a referendum – and that will give her the majority.


  1. Ms Sturgeon dodged the question today of whether she would, like Mr Salmond and Mr Cameron, resign if she called and then lost a referendum. This is, however, the cause of her life, and she can be expected to fight for it with total dedication. For Mrs May, the personal stakes are perhaps not quite so high – this referendum is clearly not her idea, and her party might well stand by her even if she lost. Even so, the humiliation of “losing” Scotland would be very great for any Prime Minister.


  1. This contest will be existential for the Labour Party, whose roots lie North of the Border. Without Scotland the Conservatives would have a majority of well over 70, even on existing boundaries, in the rest of the UK. It took defeat in the Brexit referendum to trigger the first challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Could the risk of losing a second referendum bring forward the next attempt to get rid of him?


  1. Mrs May and her advisers will now mull over a more substantial response than their instant reply. Will they insist that no further referendum take place until after spring 2019? Might they argue that the question should not be as last time (“should Scotland be an independent country?”) but instead be modelled on the Brexit one (“should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?”) Might they argue that those UK residents who would qualify to play football for Scotland (by virtue of having a grandparent born in Scotland) should have a vote in the survival of the UK?


  1. The instant impact of this announcement is likely to be on business confidence and investment, both in the UK as a whole and (especially) in Scotland. Ironically, this may help the Brexiteers. They now have a strong alternative explanation for any slowdown in the UK economy in coming months.


  1. The EU’s instant reaction (see above) was to play a very straight bat, and to reaffirm their view that Scotland would have to re-join the EU from outside if it chose independence. But the EU’s negotiating team would only be human to believe that the UK’s hand has been weakened. This might encourage them to be even more robust in their opening positions. Equally, HMG will be determined not to look as though they are on the back foot. The prospects of an early (albeit temporary, and for show) “breakdown” in the Brexit talks have increased.

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