Aye or Naw…all over again?: Nicola Sturgeon raises question of a second Scottish Independence referendum

September 25, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to publish draft legislation setting out the timescale and proposed question for a second Scottish independence referendum.

What does this mean?

In 2014, Scotland’s self-proclaimed “once in a generation” independence referendum rejected independence by 55% to 45%. Whilst this was a crushing blow to many Scots, it seemed the fiercely controversial question was put to bed.

But the Scottish National Party wasn’t so sure. In its 2016 manifesto it stated that a material change of circumstances, like the UK leaving the EU against Scotland’s wishes, could put another referendum on the cards. Sure enough, on Tuesday 1 September Nicola Sturgeon announced plans for a second referendum ahead of Hollyrood’s upcoming election in May 2021.

Importantly, Sturgeon has stressed that any referendum must be legally incontestable, which means the Scottish government will need Westminster to give the green light. But permission has been refused twice in the past by both Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

What's the big picture effect?

Whilst it is no certainty that a referendum will even go ahead, a recent YouGov survey found that independence is favoured by 53%. Importantly, this is the first time independence has maintained a majority in polls conducted months apart. 

At the centre of the independence debate is Scotland’s alleged fiscal shortfall. This year, the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) statement has estimated Scotland’s fiscal deficit to be at 8.6% – three times that of the UK’s. Even nationalists must question whether an independent Scotland could even fund itself. 

Whilst GERS is widely accepted, tax expert Professor Richard Murphy (an Englishman) insists that the methodology overstates the deficit. He’s claimed it wrongly attributes certain Scottish revenues to Westminster; assigns an inaccurate proportion of UK debt to Scotland; and considers some expenditure Scottish expenditure, even if it is for the benefit of the entire UK.

The Yes camp have also pointed out that Scotland could simply borrow, as even highly indebted countries are currently borrowing easily at low interest rates. But some economists have retorted that, without a credit history, Scotland may be met with high interest rates and demands to cut public spend.

Another problem is that a lot has changed since 2014 – the coronavirus crisis has shaken the world economy, oil prices have plummeted, and the UK has left the EU. If Scotland could join the EU, it may face a hard border with the UK (its biggest trading partner), and a damaged world market.

However, pure economic arguments are rarely a match for nationalist feeling. Michael Gove has therefore called for a plan for the union to “excite and inspire and be as much about society as it is about economics”.

Scotland is a nation with a strong sense of identity, and its history is characterised by fending off subjugation by Romans, Nordic vikings, and English monarchs. 2020 saw the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, a letter written by Scottish barons which includes the statement: “For so long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will never in any degree be subject to the dominion of the English”. For many nationalists, no matter the advantages of the union, Scotland should be independent as a matter of principle. 

But it would be remiss to reduce independence to a purely nostalgic, emotional pursuit. Many Scots feel disenfranchised, and estranged from prevailing British opinion. Data shows that the EU referendum, Boris’ election as PM, and Brexit have all inspired increased support for independence. Sturgeon’s handling of the COVID crisis has also earned her recent brownie points, in comparison to Boris’ questionable efforts. 

The primary motive for independence therefore appears to be to realise Scotland’s democratic will. Nationalists want “the government they vote for”, and in turn to achieve policies like greater investment in public health, removal of nuclear weapons at Trident, and of course to re-enter the EU. 

Scottish nationalists face a barrage of difficult questions to answer, now more than ever as we navigate unprecedented economic and societal turbulence. But is the turmoil of recent years the final nail in the coffin for the union?

Report written by Rory Crawford

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