Is now the time to think about a second independence referendum?

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently claimed that the case for Scottish independence has been ‘materially strengthened’ by the Brexit process. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum’s successful ‘no’ campaign promised security and EU membership within the United Kingdom as opposed to the uncertainty of being left outside of it.  Both of these assurances have since been obliterated by the 2016 vote for the UK to exit the European Union.  Is now the time to consider a second Scottish independence referendum?

The SNP’s initial attempt at a second vote in 2017 was rebuked by Prime Minister Theresa May who said that “now is not the time”. She characterised this as being a distraction from the immediate pressures of Brexit.  However, the SNP argues that Scotland, which overwhelmingly voted to remain in the European Union, is not being listened to by the government in Westminster. Ms Sturgeon has claimed that Scotland’s interests have been “completely ignored and sidelined.”  In the days leading up to the 2014 independence vote, the leaders of the three main parties signed a joint statement promising to Scotland that “[a] no vote will deliver faster, safer and better change than separation.”  Brexit Britain has shattered these promises. 

The call for a second independence referendum should not be seen as a distraction from the Brexit process but a legitimate part of it. It is a reaction to how the Brexit process has failed to uphold the interests of the Scottish people.

An independent Scotland has to be a viable prospect.  When oil prices plummeted and Scotland’s oil tax revenue fell from £1.8 billion in 2015 to £60 million in 2016, the economic forecasts of the 2014 campaign were left in tatters. If Scotland is to make a viable economic case for independence this time, it cannot be so heavily reliant on oil, but turn its attention to its renewable energy, food, drink and tourism sectors.

An independent Scotland would also stop receiving finances from Westminster via the Barnett Formula, which assigns population-based budgets to each nation.  Currently, Scotland often receives a higher proportion of UK government spending per head than England and Wales. In 2012-13, Scotland got £10,152 per head, Wales £9,709 and England £8,529. An independent Scotland would have to account for these new financial shortfalls, which could involve adjusting tax rates and rethinking funding for existing things like free tuition fees for Scottish students. 

In some ways this vision of independence appears challenging and in some ways threatens Scotland’s status quo. However, it may appear to be less of a gamble to voters this time when the alternative is a divided and a potentially chaotic United Kingdom struggling in the aftermath of Brexit.  In any case, it seems that the argument for a second independence referendum will be much stronger if it is based on the economic and social realities of life after Brexit, not just speculation. This can only be known once the UK has left the EU.

A Panelbase poll for LBC and the Sunday Times Scotland published in December 2018 found that almost 59 per cent of respondents think Scottish independence would be better than a no-deal Brexit, with 53 per cent saying that independence would be more beneficial than staying in a UK which is not a member of the EU with a negotiated trade-deal. However, if the vote took place now, 53 per cent would still vote against independence. This suggests that the flames of Scottish independence are not extinguished but are definitely smouldering. It is clear the path that Brexit takes from here onwards will determine whether they ignite again and if so, just how brightly they will burn.


Image: Alasdair McKenzie via Flickr

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