BY ADAM STEINHOUSE
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, indicated in April 2019 that her government wishes to hold a second independence referendum – what Sturgeon terms “a choice between Brexit and a future for Scotland as an independent European nation” – before the next Scottish Parliament election in May 2021, though such a process is contingent upon an agreement with the central government in Westminster. She greeted the arrival of Boris Johnson as the new British Prime Minister in July by repeating her call for a second Scottish independence referendum. In the initial vote in 2014, 55% of Scots opted to stay in the United Kingdom. In an opinion poll taken in June 2019 before Johnson’s ascent to power, 53% of Scots surveyed said that they would now back independence. What has changed in the past five years?
In the UK’s Brexit referendum in June 2016, 52% of the entire British electorate voted to leave the European Union, but the people of Scotland voted in favour of the UK staying in the EU by 62% to 38%, and every part of Scotland voted to remain in the EU. In her first official visit to Edinburgh as UK prime minister, Theresa May met Nicola Sturgeon in July 2016, and was reputed to have read from a script in her attempts to convince the Scots that they had nothing to fear in a post-Brexit UK. This lack of personal chemistry is being replicated and worsened in the relationship between Johnson and Sturgeon: for many Scots, Boris Johnson is reviled not just because he was one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign but also because he embodies a privileged ruling English class that has no regard for them. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote in July 2019 that Johnson’s brand of anti-European conservatism was regarded in Scotland as anti-Scottish and that “no matter what he may say now, two decades of anti-Scottish invective will come back to haunt him.”
Other than personalities, there are also structural reasons for the apparent upsurge in support for Scottish independence. One so far unresolved question is: after the UK leaves the EU, what will happen to key policies like agriculture and the environment, that have been devolved to Scotland but are constrained by EU treaty law? There is a fear expressed by the Scottish National Party (SNP) that the Westminster Parliament will retain policy-making power and so reduce the Scottish Parliament’s legislative scope in these areas. Even more crucially, the SNP argues that Scotland will not receive the funding from London which it currently gets from the EU: some £380 million in the last five years, as well as other funds for scientific research and agricultural spending. Moreover, the UK Parliament in Westminster passed the 2018 EU Withdrawal Act, the first legal step towards the UK exiting from the EU, despite strong objections from the Scottish government, backed by the Scottish Parliament.
All of these steps reinforce the uncertain nature of the devolution process begun by Tony Blair’s government twenty years ago, in 1999. James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, wrote that “devolution had no single constitutional logic.” Some proponents envisaged devolution as a path towards a British federation, while others saw it as an end in itself. Scottish nationalist critics of devolution denounced the lack of clarity in the sharing out of legal competences between Edinburgh and London and argued for the need to go further towards full independence for Scotland. As is commonly the case in the British system, with its unwritten constitution, the settlement of devolution issues was to be resolved by ad hoc arrangements and consensus between the devolved administrations and the central government. The Oxford University Law Professor Sionaidh Douglas-Scott wrote in 2015, well over a year before the Brexit referendum, about the limitations of this approach: “The UK central government could be on a path of EU renegotiation and referendum without the support of any devolved administrations. It is difficult to see how the legitimacy of devolved government can be sustained if vitally important decisions on EU membership are taken without consensus between the UK government and these administrations.”
In her April 2019 statement to the Scottish Parliament about Brexit and the future of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon emphasized the breakdown of devolution: “The Westminster system of government simply does not serve Scotland’s interests, and the devolution settlement in its current form is now seen to be utterly inadequate to the task of protecting those interests.” In order to promote new ways of thinking about Scotland’s constitutional future, Sturgeon initiated plans for a citizens’ assembly, a group of representative citizens chosen to learn about and debate an issue before reaching conclusions. This model was used successfully in Ireland in 2016-2017 to make recommendations about abortion reform which were later approved in a national referendum in 2018.
In recent polling, alignment between those Scots supporting EU membership and those backing Scottish independence has strengthened. Professor of Politics John Curtice, of the University of Strathclyde, writes that the increase in support for Scottish independence has occurred entirely among those who voted Remain: “It would seem that the Brexit impasse has motivated some Remain supporters in recent months to reevaluate their attitudes towards the [British] Union.”
Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly talked about the lack of legitimacy of the UK central government in the affairs of Scotland: “Scotland did not vote for Brexit, or for the current Tory government – and certainly not for Boris Johnson as Prime Minister,” she said on July 22, 2019, continuing, “All of this underlines the need for Scotland to have the right to determine our own future, in line with the democratic wishes of all those who live here.” Sarah Smith, the BBC’s Scotland editor, wrote astutely on July 23: “In the end, it may not be the precise details of any Brexit deal that stokes desire for independence – or, indeed, the character of any individual politician – but a sense that Scotland has different aspirations from the rest of the UK, which can’t be reconciled within the current union.”