End of the Union? The Relentless Growth of the Scottish Independence Movement
Since the Middle Ages, Scotland has possessed a distinct cultural and national identity. Yet, with the 1707 Act of Union, Edinburgh formed a political union with London, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was born. Resultingly, Scotland became somewhat of a junior partner of British imperialism, resembling one the most successful geopolitical alliances in history. As the Empire slowly collapsed in the 20th century, however, the established British identity was gradually replaced by a rejuvenated Scottish identity. From a modern perspective, this historical dynamic is represented by the SNP’s rise to power in Scotland in 2007, and although the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence failed, support for independence retains an unyielding expansion.
The democratic rejection of Scottish independence relied heavily upon the concern that it would render an independent Scotland without EU membership. Uncoincidentally, 62% of Scots voted to remain in the 2016 EU referendum. As such, the removal of Scotland from the EU against its democratic will diminishes the fundamental concern it had with independence, thus strengthening that desire for independence while simultaneously fuelling justification for a second referendum under altered political circumstances.
Expectedly, Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, is taking both political and legal steps towards this aspiration. Sturgeon proclaimed that she intends to ‘have a legal referendum to give people in Scotland the right to choose’ should the SNP win a majority in the Scottish elections in May, a stance that Boris Johnson has explicitly rejected.
Moreover, although Sturgeon’ response to the crisis has left much to be desired, the chaotic management of the coronavirus pandemic by the British government has further weakened Scottish faith in Westminster. In essence, the debacle provides justification that governance would be more efficient should it be liberated from London’s political control. Given these recent political developments intensifying the case for independence, it is a necessity to evaluate the prospects for Scotland’s future.
The strongest justification for independence is the public support for it. Opinion polling since the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 suggests that support for ‘Yes’ to independence has approximately a 5% lead over support for ‘No’, a reality that is particularly acute amongst younger voters. Furthermore, polling suggests that the SNP is set to win a landslide majority in Holyrood in May’s elections. Given Sturgeon’s aforementioned commitment to a second independence referendum, this political situation lends itself to a democratic mandate for independence being attained in the foreseeable future.
The desire for Edinburgh to regain complete control over Scottish resources and governance from London is also significant. Many Scots are persuaded by the possibility of re-joining the EU after independence and are sympathetic to the prospect of nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, there is unmistakable craving for an enhancement of Scottish democracy and self-determination, both of which could be achieved through independence.
Meanwhile, both Labour and the Tories are failing to politically succeed in their respective anti-independence positions. Support for both the Conservatives, and the Union they are associated with, is diminishing, while Labour’s historically strong presence in Scotland has remarkably collapsed owing to the rise of the SNP. Kier Starmer’s recent commitment to devolution in attempt to subdue independence desires has appeared insufficient to counteract the momentum of independence. Fundamentally, the SNP and its drive for independence, despite its imperfections, is the only successful political force in contemporary Scottish politics. Independence becomes politically feasible once the SNP can exploit this to their advantage.
There are also difficulties that would need to be overcome to achieve independence. Not only would Sturgeon’s referendum pledge be met with political opposition from the Conservative government, but potentially legal opposition. There would have to be a successful judgement of the legality of any referendum for the result to realistically result in independence. On top of this potential difficulty, there are also practical issues in need of consideration, such as the currency of an independent Scotland.
Although an independent Scotland would comfortably meet the criteria for EU membership, admittance to the EU would not be an immediate and straightforward process. This could contribute to the economic difficulties inflicted by independence. The SNP’s economic forecasts for Scotland’s independence have been criticised for overstating economic benefits, while excluding or diminishing economic drawbacks. Put simply, the economic prospects of an independent Scotland are still clouded with uncertainty, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic. Under this uncertainty, further devolution could be regarded as a sufficient alternative.
While the road to Scottish independence contains significant obstacles ahead, whether they be political, legal or economic, public opinion and political developments have been propelling the historic nation in the direction of independence for some time. The Union is evidently weakening, and Brexit places its constitutional future in irrefutable doubt.