Rather than calming the debate, the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing Brexit negotiations between the UK and EU have only served to refocus the Scottish independence debate ahead of next year's Scottish Parliament elections.
Whether or not to pursue independence has long been the predominant question in Scottish politics. It transcends nearly every issue, including Brexit. While Scotland’s opposition to leaving the EU is well known, Brexit itself has largely functioned as a vehicle for the ongoing independence debate.
As it has everywhere, the coronavirus pandemic, however, has also changed politics in Scotland. The usual independence conversation has been side-lined. The Scottish Government has, for instance, paused its work on preparing for a new prospective referendum, and the governing Scottish National Party (SNP) officially suspended all related campaigning.
The public policy response to the coronavirus has showcased the division of powers within the UK to a much wider extent than usual. Health, education, and law and order in Scotland are all the responsibility of the Scottish Government, not the UK Government. Nevertheless, this system of devolution remains poorly understood in London.
Even throughout the pandemic, the issue of independence never completely disappeared. It has largely manifested itself through arguments over whether Scotland should align or diverge with England on policy decisions around the coronavirus lockdown, including travel restrictions, reopening society, and social distancing advice. Some opponents of independence have advocated following the UK Government’s approach, while supporters of independence have argued that Scotland should set its own course.
Regular politics have now begun to return somewhat – prompted in particular by Brexit. The negotiations on the EU-UK future relationship are clearly in difficulty. Even if progress is made in the talks, the objective of a free trade agreement (FTA), plus cooperation in other areas, would make the UK the most disconnected country from the EU this side of the continent. On the other hand, the Scottish Government published a report arguing for the transition to be extended because of the coronavirus; the UK Government, however, remains committed to the original timetable.
Now that the Brexit transition has not been extended, the independence debate should resume more fully in the months ahead. The primary pre-pandemic focus of the Scottish Government had been to secure a new legally valid referendum through consensus with the UK Government. The first minister, Nicola Sturgeon requested a transfer of power for one last December, but it was rejected by Boris Johnson. Nevertheless, the first minister had pledged to hold a referendum by the end of this year. The coronavirus ended that prospect – though it had seemed improbable in any case.
The SNP’s objective has been to follow the precedent set through the first independence referendum in 2014: a temporary transfer of authority to the Scottish Parliament for a legal referendum and an agreement between the Scottish and UK Governments on the vote (including implementing the outcome). Given London’s unwillingness to discuss these points, the next Scottish election is shaping up to become a defining moment on whether a referendum will take place. That election is currently scheduled for May 2021.
Independence will undoubtedly be the central issue in that election. In Scotland’s complex politics, one of the most contested points is what constitutes a “mandate” for a referendum. If the election produces a parliamentary majority in favour of independence, or indeed the SNP wins a majority (it is currently a minority government), political and moral pressure will build on the UK Government to facilitate a referendum. A pro-independence majority already exists in the Scottish Parliament, but a renewed election win would be a clear democratic statement.
Since 2016, the independence debate has been strongly shaped by Brexit. Besides obliging voters to choose between the EU and the UK (since being part of both is no longer possible), it has also changed the basis of the conversation. An independent Scotland’s path to EU membership and the Scotland-England border would be different in the post-Brexit context since Scotland and the rest of the UK would seek diverging relationships with the EU.
The coronavirus has brought economic recovery and sustainability to the fore, which will also affect the independence debate. Arguments about whether Scotland should be an independent state have long spanned themes beyond democracy or sovereignty. Economic and social policies also feature, including whether or not Scotland could achieve better social outcomes with the full powers of the State. For instance, some supporters of independence believe that Scotland should adopt a Nordic social model.
Opinion polls in recent months have shown increased support both for independence and holding a referendum – and several have produced small majorities for statehood. Those increases have largely been driven by Boris Johnson as prime minister, the policies of the Conservative government in London and the UK’s departure from the EU at the end of January. It is certainly feasible that support for independence could continue to grow. If the UK defaults out of its transition with no EU-UK agreement in December, more voters may reassess their view of the UK union. However, the development of the independence debate will also be crucial.
Many of the people who have moved to support independence - or are considering such a move - are pro-Europeans who were against leaving the UK in 2014. Such voters are often looking for reassurance that detailed thinking has been done on the major issues of debate. At the same time, existing supporters of independence have differing views on how soon a referendum should be held or how to confront the UK Government’s refusal to engage. If these divisions are not well-managed, they could end up dissuading people from backing independence by creating a confusing picture of what approach would be taken.
Independence will eventually make its full return to Scotland’s political conversation, and it will now be heavily shaped by both Brexit and the coronavirus. Through these prisms, the upcoming Scottish election will prove decisive in determining Scotland’s future direction.
- Anthony Salamone is Managing Director of European Merchants, a political analysis firm based in Edinburgh
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