Scotland’s unofficial anthem ‘Flower of Scotland’, sung proudly at sporting occasions, celebrates the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. There, the Scots led by Robert the Bruce, crushed the much larger army of England’s King Edward II and, in the anthem’s words, ‘Sent him homeward to think again’.
More than 700 years later, Scotland has again given England, and the rest of the United Kingdom (UK), which comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plenty to think about. Not least, how to respond to new demands for another referendum on Scottish independence.
Scotland voted no to independence in 2014. However, Scotland’s government, elected in May 2021, and led by the Scottish National Party (SNP) with the support of the Green Party, believes another referendum on independence is justified as Scotland was ‘dragged out of the European Union against its will’. In the UK’s referendum on EU membership in 2016, Scotland voted 62% to remain, but votes against the EU in much larger England tipped the balance and, overall, the UK voted 52% to leave.
To hold a second independence referendum, Scotland First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, will seek the UK government’s agreement. The decision to agree or not, rests with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who strongly opposes Scottish independence. In making his decision, Johnson must decide which is the best way to combat the Scottish nationalism that threatens the UK’s ‘Union’.
So far, Johnson has said that he would say no to a second referendum. He argues that the 55% vote rejecting independence in 2014 settled the matter for ‘a generation’. Legally, Johnson has no obligation to agree. Scotland may take the case to the UK Supreme Court but is unlikely to win. No referendum, no independence. Problem solved.
Problem solved or just delayed? Refusing a referendum will not defeat Scottish nationalism. Scotland’s government argues that the union of Scotland with England and Wales that formed Great Britain in 1707 was voluntary. Being a Union built on consent, irrespective of the law, the UK government has no democratic justification to deny Scotland the right to decide its future. Demands for a second referendum will continue and, at some point, may become irresistible. Denying it now may just make Scotland more angry and so more likely to vote for independence in the future.
Alternatively, Johnson could agree to a second referendum. This would risk breaking up the UK but could be worth taking to secure the UKs longer-term future. The SNP has shrewdly established a narrative that Scottish independence is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. However, support for independence among Scots may not be as strong as is claimed.
Although interpreted as a mandate for a second referendum, Scotland’s latest election results have not changed things very much. In 2016, the SNP and Greens, together, won 69 of the 129 seats in the Scottish parliament; in May 2021, they won 72. Progress but hardly an independence wave. Also, not all votes for the SNP and the Greens are votes for independence. Between June 2020 and April 2021, opinion polls showed most Scots supporting independence, peaking at 54% in November. However, in the month before the election this had fallen to 49%.
Support for independence increased during the 2014 referendum campaign, but the pro-Union campaign was especially poor, and its supporters are unlikely to repeat the same mistakes. Johnson is very unpopular in Scotland, but he is an effective campaigner and there is a strong pro-Union base in Scotland that he could mobilise. Johnson’s Conservative party, although a long way behind the SNP, is the second largest party in Scotland, with the Labour party, which also opposes independence, in third place. Johnson could also win a referendum because there are fundamental questions to which Scotland’s independence movement does not have convincing answers.
While clear that the Queen would remain an independent Scotland’s Head of State, it is not clear what currency the new country would use. Continuing with the UK’s pound sterling would undermine independence by leaving the Bank of England in charge of Scotland’s monetary policy. However, a new currency may be unstable making it difficult for Scotland to raise finance and pay debt. An independent Scotland would also have to negotiate its ‘share’ of the UK national debt, currently around 97% of UK GDP, adding to the uncertainty over Scottish finances. Security and defence issues would also need to be resolved as the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet is based in Scotland.
Nearly two-thirds of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the UK, compared to 10% of the rest of the UK with Scotland. Independent Scotland’s new trade relations, including membership of the World Trade Organisation, would be difficult without a settlement with the rest of the UK that covered problematic issues such as oil and fish. As a relatively small country with a population of around 5.5 million, Scotland is unlikely to be a priority for international trade.
An independent Scotland would seek to rejoin the EU, but this will also depend on its relationship with the rest of the UK, especially as it would create a second land border between the UK and the EU. The current land border between the UK’s Northern Ireland and EU member the Republic of Ireland is already problematic. Scotland may also need its own currency, with the risks that entails, to meet the convergence criteria before it can join the euro.EU Member States concerned about their own separatist movements, such as Spain, could also veto Scottish EU membership.
The more ‘independent’ Scotland is from the UK the more uncertain its future. There are also sharp divisions in the independence movement about how to address these problems. By agreeing to a second referendum Johnson could expose weaknesses and disagreements in the pro-independence camp. Johnson could make settling the terms of independence a condition to hold the referendum to make it clear what Scots would be voting for. In addition, Johnson could make a strong case for Scotland being in the UK. This includes the security and prosperity of an advanced, rich economy with international trading links, a strong tradeable currency and political influence. Further devolution, rather than independence, could also be offered to Scotland as part of a constitutional settlement, the absence of which has encouraged disputes between the UK and its four member countries.
Denying a referendum on Scottish independence is not a long-term solution. Defeating the pro-independence movement for a second time would seal Scotland’s place in the UK for the foreseeable future. However, holding a referendum is a risk and Johnson would not want to be the Prime Minister who presided over the break-up of the UK. It’s a lot to think about.