The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union is certain to have far reaching consequences both domestically and internationally. Dominating early headlines is the idea that this decision could lead to the fragmentation of the UK as geographic divisions have been thrown into sharp relief. With Northern Ireland and Scotland both voting to remain – Scotland by a large margin – nationalists from these countries have already begun pushing for votes on leaving the UK. In the case of N. Ireland, this would mean uniting with the Republic of Ireland. In Scotland this would mean a referendum on independence, coming hot on the heels of the 2014 vote to remain in the UK. Of these two scenarios, a Scottish referendum is the more likely. The Scottish National Party, with the support of the Scottish Greens, certainly have the numbers to put a bill through the Scottish Parliament. Although Westminster could theoretically deny the Scottish Parliament the power to legally declare independence, in practical political terms the will of the Scottish electorate would have to be respected. Given that a divided vote in this referendum was flagged up in the SNP’s manifesto as a legitimate reason for a second referendum, the SNP are almost bound to push for this at some point. Nicola Sturgeon has signalled that this will happen, although the timeframe has yet to be set and other options for remaining in the EU are being explored. With the second Scottish independence referendum (IndyRef) likely to happen, what might signal a successful campaign?
A change in opinion polls
The first and most obvious signal of a successful campaign is a measureable swing towards independence. Despite
strong electoral results for the SNP following the 2014 referendum, a clear majority in favour of independence is yet to bear out in any opinion polls. In the last few days one newspaper run poll reports support for independence soaring to 60%, but far more evidence is required to demonstrate a sustained swing. Despite having the numbers and mandate for a second referendum, the SNP is likely to wait for evidence that Scotland’s strong vote to remain within the EU is would be enough to swing a new independence referendum in its favour. Although the SNP is an extraordinarily popular party, there has been little appetite among the wider electorate for a second vote so far.
Although the independence issue is sure to galvanise existing independence supporters, the SNP will be wary of electoral fatigue and entrenched support for remaining in the UK. Independence campaigners have been given a second opportunity, but they know they are unlikely to get a third.
Positive signals from the EU
The case for holding a second independence referendum rests entirely on the UK voting to leave the EU last Thursday, while Scotland voted strongly to stay. Thus, a second IndyRef will be fought with membership of the EU taking centre stage to an even greater extent than last time. This means that what the EU and its officials have to say on the chances of Scotland remaining (or rejoining) as a member of the organisation is crucially important. During the last referendum, mixed signals were given about Scotland’s likely status, with some insisting that it would remain a member while others suggested that it would have to reapply. If EU leaders want to punish the rest of the UK for voting to leave, as many have suggested, then encouraging Scotland to join would be one effective way of doing so.
It could also give the EU a much needed shot in the arm, as a small nation chooses to join the organisation just as the threat of further fragmentation looms. A senior German MEP has signalled that breakaway nations of the UK will be welcome in the EU, and this type of positive rhetoric could certainly push up support for independence. However, this risks poisoning relationships with Westminster during a period of fraught negotiations. Furthermore, countries such as Spain are wary of encouraging secessionist governments given their own problems in this area. Whatever signals the EU leadership chooses to give will be central to the chances of a successful push for independence.
The position of Scotland’s major parties.
A third, but less important factor, is the position of other parties in Scotland. The Scottish Labour party, for so long dominant north of the border, is currently faring even worse than their southern counterparts. They were recently beaten into third place in the Scottish Parliament by the Conservatives, a situation unthinkable in the past. The Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has naturally spoken out against another referendum and Scottish Labour are theoretically a strongly Unionist party. However, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has been seen as lukewarm in this area in the past. She has announced that Scottish Labour will not support another referendum ‘any time soon’, but given the amount of uncertainty at this stage this could change. Furthermore, former first minister and Labour leader, Henry Mcleish has hinted at a change of outlook saying that Scotland’s future has “massively changed overnight.” Scottish Labour has been very nearly destroyed by standing alongside the Conservatives and against independence, so perhaps this time they will be less vociferous in fighting against a largely left wing case for independence and EU membership. This would be a major boost for the independence movement, and would represent a move towards a very broad coalition in favour of leaving. The Liberal Democrats fought hard for the Union at the last referendum, but their leader has stated that in the future their politicians will be free to campaign as they wish. Given how strong Lib Dem support for the European Union is, they could well make the jump over to the pro-independence side if it was seen as the best option for remaining part of the bloc. However, their support is likely to be highly contingent on signals regarding Scotland’s successful membership of the EU.
Although a second IndyRef has a number of political and legal hurdles to clear, as well as a large swing needed from the last vote, if these conditions are met the odds on Scottish independence would be very strong indeed. This would certainly have knock-on effects regarding Wales, N.Ireland and the strength of the British economy at a time when volatility in both politics and the economy is at a high point.
Image courtesy of Lawrence OP