In a 2014 referendum on whether Scotland should break away to become Europe’s newest nation state, Scots voted to stay in the three-centuries-old union with England and Wales by 55% to 45%. Rather than settling the matter, though, the separatists gathered in strength and numbers. They became key political power brokers by winning most of Scotland’s seats in the UK Parliament. Now they’re laying the ground for another vote, even though the government in London has refused to allow one, and the push for an independent Scotland shows no sign of going away.
1. Why does Scotland want independence?
Scotland and England united to form Great Britain in 1707, but the two nations retain a host of cultural and political differences. With about 5.5 million people, Scotland makes up about 8% of the UK’s population and its economy. Many Scots see rule from London as a fundamental lack of self-determination. The distinctions go beyond kilts and bagpipes: Scotland has its own legal and education systems, soccer league and bank notes. The Scottish National Party, which is spearheading the independence drive, also wants to remove Britain’s nuclear weapons from a loch in western Scotland.
2. Haven’t we been here before?
Yes. The SNP is a formidable electoral machine, winning 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats at the last general election in 2019. Polling pointed to a possible win for the independence campaign in the run-up to the 2014 referendum, though stark warnings about the economic impact of a split -- and the UK government’s refusal to allow an independent Scotland to continue using the British pound as its currency -- helped swing the electorate. In the eight years after the vote, polls showed Scottish voters still roughly split down the middle, with the younger generation far more likely to vote for independence.
3. So, what’s changed?
Mainly Brexit. While the UK voted as a whole to leave the European Union in 2016, Scottish voters wanted to remain by 62% to 38%. More than a decade of rule by the Conservative Party has alienated Scots further. The UK’s messy divorce from the bloc has fueled grievances, hitting Scotland’s fishing industry particularly hard. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, who runs Scotland’s semi-autonomous government, argues that the break gives her new authority to pose the independence question once again. The separatists believe that independence from the UK could lead to a reestablishment of ties with the EU, though Scotland would need to apply to rejoin the bloc.
4. Where does that leave the SNP?
Sturgeon escalated the conflict in June 2022 by pushing ahead with a plan to hold a referendum on a set date -- Oct. 19, 2023 -- accelerating the process of getting the necessary draft legislation tested by the Supreme Court. The UK’s top judges, though, ruled on Nov. 23 that Scotland doesn’t have the power to unilaterally hold such a vote. Sturgeon responded by reiterating her Plan B: if the UK continues to refuse to grant Scotland a so-called Section 30 order allowing another referendum, the SNP will fight the next UK general election on the single issue of independence, though it’s unclear how that would work. Many activists in the SNP have been agitating for Scotland to hold a second referendum regardless of whether London approves one, though Sturgeon says any vote must be lawful. The Scottish leader is determined not to follow the route taken by Catalan separatists, who held an illegal -- and violent -- vote on leaving Spain in 2017. The Madrid government temporarily seized control of the region and Catalan leaders were later jailed.
5. Is there a path to another referendum?
Not really. The UK government has repeatedly refused to allow another vote, saying the last one was a once-in-a-generation event. The British government can just say “no” for as long as it wants. The next UK general election, which must be held no later than January 2025, could break the deadlock. The SNP is the third-largest party in Westminster and in the event that no party wins a majority of seats in Parliament, it could agree to support a government led by, say, the Labour Party in exchange for a path to another independence vote. A compromise could include the setting of a benchmark for what needs to be achieved for a second referendum to happen, such as opinion polls showing support for independence above 50% for more than 12 months, for instance. The Labour Party, though, also opposes a referendum and agreeing to one would mean gambling with the future integrity of the UK.
6. How would Scottish independence work?
That’s the big question. The last referendum forced politicians on both sides of the border to try to map out what a stand-alone Scotland would look like. The biggest challenge after Brexit is how to address the prospect of a hard frontier between Scotland and England -– with border-control infrastructure and documentary checks -- along with how long it might take for an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU. The Scottish government has been publishing a series of policy papers explaining how an independent nation would work, including setting up its own central bank. The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, known as Holyrood, was restored in 1999, with the UK government relinquishing oversight of such policy areas as transportation and health. Sturgeon and her allies are seeking full autonomy to control the economy and foreign policy and to rejoin the EU.
7. Can Scotland afford to be independent?
It’s tricky. Public spending per person in Scotland was 11% higher than the UK average in 2020/21, according to government data, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that 67% of day-to-day spending in Scotland is funded by a so-called block grant from England. The Conservative Party claims increases in public spending strengthen the case for Scotland to remain within the union. Scotland’s public spending deficit was 12.3% of gross domestic product in the 2021-22 financial year. That said, the nation benefits both from North Sea oil and gas reserves and vast fishing waters, and has a rich history in innovation and financial services. Scotland is also a magnet for tourism and Scotch whisky is by far the biggest UK food and drink export.
• “What Scotland Thinks” blog from John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University.
• How Scotland is taking its independence fight to the U.K.’s top court.
• A New York Times report on Sturgeon’s referendum plans.
• “How Scots Invented the Modern World,” a book by Arthur Herman, a former professor of history at Georgetown University.
--With assistance from Alastair Reed.
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