When Scots vote next Thursday, they will not only choose who should govern them from Holyrood for the next five years – they could begin to determine the future of the United Kingdom itself. First minister Nicola Sturgeon has promised a second independence referendum if her Scottish National Party (SNP), which has been in power for 14 years, is returned for another term.
The Conservatives, the second largest party at Holyrood, have also characterised the election as a vote on whether to have a second referendum, promising to block it if they can. Polls point to a clear majority of pro-independence Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), including the SNP, the Greens and possibly Alex Salmond's new Alba party.
Scots have two votes in the parliamentary election, one for a constituency MSP and another for a regional party list. The constituency MSPs are elected on a first-past-the-post system as at Westminster; votes for the regional list are distributed among the parties to make the outcome more proportional.
"The constitutional question is the fundamental dividing line in the electorate," says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and Britain's leading polling expert.
“You’ve got nearly 90 per cent of those people who say they would vote yes in a referendum saying they’re going to vote for the SNP in the constituency, some of whom then go on to say, I’ll vote for the Greens or Alba on the list. And you’ve got less than 10 per cent of those people who say they’re opposed to independence, saying that they are going to vote for the SNP or indeed then subsequently for Alba for the list. So it’s a fundamental dividing line and it’s a sharper dividing line than it has been in any previous Scottish election.”
Support for independence has increased since the 2014 referendum, when Scots voted by 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the United Kingdom. The biggest drivers of this change have been Brexit, which Scotland opposed by 62 per cent to 38 per cent, and Sturgeon’s assured handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
But both Brexit and coronavirus have also complicated the path to independence, the former because of the prospect of a hard border with England and the latter because of its impact on the public finances.
"Life is complicated and there are complexities in whatever path a country takes. And I think what's important to people like me – in stark contrast to those who proposed Brexit – is not to try to oversimplify complex issues but to be straight with people about how we navigate our way through those," Sturgeon told The Irish Times during a campaign stop in Glasgow this week.
“But for me the fundamental principle here is, you face complexities however you’re governed but you’re going to be better able to steer your way through those complexities if you’re actually in charge of the decisions that determine how you do that. Right now, Brexit has happened to Scotland against our will. We had a decade of austerity imposed on us against our will. As we recover from Covid, the danger is we’re taken again in the wrong direction against our will. Independence is not a magic wand that takes away every challenge Scotland faces but it puts the levers in our own hands in terms of how we try to navigate those challenges.”
British prime minister Boris Johnson has said he will refuse to authorise a second referendum, which requires Westminster's consent, even if the Scottish parliament votes for one. Such a refusal is likely to trigger a contest in the courts between the Scottish and the British governments as well as a political battle between Sturgeon and Johnson.
Johnson’s current strategy for boosting support for the Union is to use the Internal Market Act to fund projects in Scotland directly from Westminster, bypassing the Scottish parliament. The fruits of Westminster’s largesse will be clearly badged as UK-funded projects, branded with a Union Jack.
“I think they’re underestimating the extent to which even in Scotland, the Union Jack is not a symbol of unity,” says Nicola McEwen, co-director of Edinburgh University’s Centre on Constitutional Change. “It is for some, but you don’t need to convince them. I think it’s unlikely that it will have the desired effect. From a public perspective, for the most part they probably don’t really care where the money is coming from if the money is coming. But that doesn’t mean it buys their loyalty.”
And if it is also seen to undermine the authority of the Scottish parliament, to which people in Scotland feel considerably more loyal and a stronger sense of attachment to the devolved institutions than to the UK institutions, then it runs the risk of backfiring there as well.
If the British government does agree to a referendum, there will be a negotiation about the terms of the vote, including the question on the ballot paper, who is allowed to vote, and rules around campaigning. During the campaign, Sturgeon will face questions about the future of the border with England if an independent Scotland joins the European Union and how the country will fare without financial transfers from London.
The SNP has so far failed to produce answers to some of the most difficult questions, and James Mitchell, an expert on the party and author of Takeover: Explaining the Extraordinary Rise of the Scottish National Party, argues that Sturgeon is part of the problem.
“She lacks strategic vision. She isn’t able to reach out beyond her core advisers and her core advisers, frankly, are not impressive people on policy matters, on strategy,” he says. “There is no doubt at all that as a communicator, as a debater, I think she’s one of the best in Britain. She has not got a strategy for the post-election period, for the referendum. That’s where her weakness lies.”
Jamie Greene, the Conservative spokesman on education at Holyrood, backs Johnson's refusal to allow a second referendum, arguing that the Scottish parliament does not have the right to break up the UK. Scottish Conservatives more than doubled their seats at Holyrood from 15 to 31 in 2016, but they appear to have peaked and are now battling with Labour to retain second place.
“I think we’re still in a strong position to deny the SNP a majority. I think they’ve rested on their laurels thinking it’ll happen. But the polls are up and down and it’s increasingly knife-edge,” Greene said.
“Our focus now has turned to the realistic mode, which is deny them that majority that we did back in 2016 as best we can and look ahead to what we can do in the next five years, which, as we’ve been campaigning for, is all about rebuilding Scotland and not seeking to divide it through more referendums.”
And if there ever is a referendum, he wants to fight it on an appeal to the head rather than the heart and with a focus on the financial cost of independence. “There are many unanswered questions and I would want people to look at the facts and make decisions on facts, facts alone, because it’s the facts that will pay their pensions,” he says.
“I hope people will look at that in the cold light of day and think less about Boris and Nicola. Because they’ll be done and dusted and gone a long time by the time people, a young generation who may seem romantically attracted to the notion of independence, will have to live with the economic consequences of it.”
Sturgeon has promised to lead an independent Scotland back into the EU, and more than 170 European writers, artists and intellectuals this week called on EU leaders to offer the country a simple route towards EU membership. Michael Keating, a political scientist specialising in nationalism, the EU and devolution, believes that accession will not be a problem but that Scotland will have to move into the core of the EU to thrive within it.
“You can be a big state on the periphery, you can be a large state in the centre. But if a small state is going to be on the periphery it’s in a position of weakness. I think you get more influence the deeper you get into it,” he says.
The SNP have in the past been torn between the Irish model of deep integration into the EU and that of Denmark and Sweden, which are outside the euro. Kirsty Hughes, who runs the Scottish Centre on European Relations, says Scots who admire how Ireland had the support of other member states during the Brexit negotiations do not get the point that Ireland chose to be a core member state.
Under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement negotiated between Britain and the EU, an independent Scotland would have a regulatory and customs border with England and Wales.
“If we adopt Sturgeon’s timetable of possibly being independent in 2026, you might be looking at joining in 2030. It’s conceivable that you might have a different government that’s taken the UK closer to the EU. You might at least have aligned with its food and animal and plant health rules. But our best bet at the moment is to do it on the basis of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. So it will be a serious and costly border,” Hughes says.
“What I always say to people is, if you want to know what that border looks like, okay, it’s a land border, but look at the Great Britain to the Republic of Ireland border, because of the Common Travel Area.”
Sturgeon has told voters she will not call a referendum until the pandemic is over but that she hopes to do so within the next 2½ years. In the meantime, sentiment within Johnson’s government at Westminster has turned against devolution, and the Internal Market Act offers a device to clip the wings of the Scottish parliament.
McEwen believes this is a high-risk strategy that will not win over nationalists and could alienate unionists threatened by Johnson’s bypass move who are strongly committed to the Scottish parliament. And it could turn on its head the balance of risks faced by Scottish voters in an independence referendum.
“If Johnson does go down the path of recentralising and undermining the authority of the parliament, then voting against independence is no longer the risk-free option,” she says. “We’ll be balancing risks, I think. It would not just be about independence but about protecting Scottish self-government.”