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There Are No Sunlit Uplands in Scotland Either

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 23: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP Party, attends a press conference on November 23, 2022 in Edinburgh, United Kingdom. A majority of Scottish MPs support holding a second independence referendum, but Downing Street has refused to agree to it. A previous independence vote was held in 2014 with Westminster’s assent; Scots decided against leaving the union by 55% to 45%. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images) (Photographer: Peter Summers/Getty Images Europe)

It may look as if the UK Supreme Court dealt a death blow to Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy for Scottish independence, with its ruling on Wednesday that no referendum could be held without agreement from Westminster. In fact, it did the opposite. The Scottish National Party leader’s objective is less to win independence than to keep the fight alive — and the Court gave her just the pretext to do so.

Sturgeon knew a loss was probable when she published a referendum bill in June and launched the case. She was clear then that if the Court ruled against the Scottish government, she would declare the next election a de facto referendum on independence. That’s exactly what’s happened.

Following the decision, Sturgeon tweeted that the Court had actually made her point: “A law that doesn’t allow Scotland to choose our own future without Westminster consent exposes as myth any notion of the UK as a voluntary partnership and makes the case for Indy,” i.e., an independence referendum. 

But Sturgeon has also upped the stakes: She is now pitching the next election as a referendum not just on independence but on democracy itself. In other words, Scots can ignore every other issue and vote SNP to defend their right to choose.

That’s a clever ploy from a party whose record in government since 2007 is poor on a whole range of key issues — from heavily criticized educational attainment (an area the SNP had pledged to improve), to a crisis-stricken health service, to the highest level of drug deaths in Europe. When it comes to questions on SNP policy areas or allegations of cronyism or dysfunction within its own ranks, its answer is to blame Westminster and talk all the louder about independence.

There’s no question that there is a large number of Scots on both sides of the in-out question. Opinion polls show about 51% of Scots are against independence and 49% are in support. A lot depends on how people think independence would affect them, especially financially. If independence increases the cost of trade between Scotland and the UK — as Brexit has done between the UK and EU — and leaves Scottish incomes to shrink over time, then a YouGov survey suggests three-quarters of current independence supporters would vote to stay.

Sturgeon knows this. She has glossed over the question of what happens to the border with England, over which most of Scotland’s imports and exports flow. 

In fact, the case for Scottish independence has never looked weaker or more self-indulgent. Not only would Scotland have the hugely difficult challenge of negotiating its exit from the UK, it would then need to reapply to join the EU, a multistage and typically multiyear project, which requires consent of all 27 member states and would force Scotland to drastically reduce a fiscal deficit that was 12.3% of GDP in 2021-2022. Nor would all EU countries jump at the prospect. Spain, which periodically has to put down rebellion from Catalonia, is hardly keen to see that precedent set.

The EU also requires aspiring members to commit to adopting the euro at some future stage — awkward for the SNP, which has said Scotland would retain the pound as its currency for a transition period and then introduce its own currency. At a time when the UK as a whole has struggled to find a path to economic growth, the SNP has failed to put forward a convincing argument for how Scotland wouldn’t be poorer outside its current union.

Sturgeon asked the Supreme Court a question to which she knew the answer to avoid other issues for which she has no solution. The bigger the problems in Scotland and the greater the SNP’s failure to address them, the more we can expect to hear that independence is the path to sunlit uplands. Scots need only look at Brexit to discern that’s not the case.

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Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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