June 29, 2017
Scottish Independence Referendum In Two Years A Real Possibility

Scottish independence is a genuine possibility once again after the Scottish first minister announced her intention to hold a second independence referendum before the end of 2019.

In a speech at her official residence in Edinburgh, Nicola Sturgeon said she would begin the process of gaining the necessary approvals for a referendum from the Scottish and U.K. parliaments next week. Should both approvals be gained, a Scottish independence vote could take place as soon as autumn, 2018.

But the British prime minister, Teresa May, called the decision "deeply regrettable" and accused the Scottish National Party (SNP) of "tunnel vision" over independence. The leader of the U.K.'s Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, also opposed the idea of Scottish independence, stating that an independent Scotland would experience "a sort of turbo-charged austerity."

Nicola Sturgeon looks forward while speaking
The Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon [Image by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]

A second vote on Scottish independence has been in the background of U.K. politics ever since the Yes campaign's defeat in the first referendum.

That referendum, held in September, 2014, saw 55 percent of Scottish voters opting to remain part of the U.K. Ultimately, a lack of clarity about key issues and the cautionary Better Together message of the No campaign dissuaded voters from choosing Scottish independence.

But the political landscape in the U.K. has changed dramatically since that first referendum in 2014. Arguably, the most dramatic change has been Brexit, the process by which the U.K. will leave the European Union. Teresa May has signaled that this process will begin officially at the end of this month when she triggers article 50.

On Monday, at Bute House, Nicola Sturgeon argued that Brexit now made her Scottish government's mandate for a new independence referendum "beyond doubt."

This mandate comes from the landslide Scottish parliament victory that the SNP achieved in the last elections. Their manifesto clearly laid out the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum if there was "significant and material change...such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will."

Sturgeon clearly believes that Brexit represents that significant change.

The first minister, who has been critical of May's approach since the U.K.-wide vote in 2016, also stated she had met a "brick wall of intransigence" in efforts to seek compromises with Westminster over a strong voice for Scotland in the Brexit process.

Teresa May looks on as her dark blue hat casts a shadow over her face.
The prime minister has criticised the move for a second referendum [Image by Ben Stanstill–WPA Pool/ Getty Images]

The timing of this speech on Scottish independence is also significant.

Originally scheduled to take place next weekend, it was brought forward in response to a rumor that the prime minister was going to trigger article 50 as early as Tuesday, March 14. While Number 10 later released a statement denying this rumor, speculation circulated that the prime minister's choice to wait until the end of the month was down to having been "unnerved by Sturgeon," according to The Guardian.

In addition, Monday also saw the defeat of the proposed amendments to the Brexit bill in the House of Commons. This defeat leaves the fate of EU citizens living in the U.K. uncertain, and also denies parliament a "meaningful vote" at the end of the Brexit process. These are both issues that Sturgeon has been vocal about.

The first minister showed her opposition to this defeat by promising that Scotland "will have a choice at the end of [Brexit]."

"[It is the] choice of whether to follow the rest of the UK to a hard Brexit, or to become an independent country, able to secure a real partnership of equals with the rest of the UK and our own relationship to Europe."

Two flags, the Saltire and the Union Flag, fly from a rooftop against a dark blue sky
Are the Saltire and Union flags destined to go their separate ways? [Image by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]

So, how likely is Scottish independence in 2018 or 2019?

According to the latest polls, Scots are split 50/50 for and against Scottish independence. But contrast this with the poll taken just before the Brexit vote, when only 40 percent of the Scottish public were in favor of Scottish independence, and one can sense why Sturgeon feels optimistic.

Yet the difficult issues from 2014 will remain in any future Scottish independence campaign.

Will the NHS still exist in Scotland after independence? Will an independent Scotland still have the pound? And what about the monarchy, taxation, borders, and defense? There's also the issue of EU membership after Scottish independence as the new core issue in any future campaign.

In response, Sturgeon has assured the public she would do better than her predecessors in the first Yes campaign. She told reporters that she would give answers "in good time," something they arguably failed to do. These answers will be crucial to gaining the public's support, and trust, for a successful Scottish independence.

But the road to Scottish independence will be far from straightforward. And as the U.K. government enters the difficult negotiations of Brexit, now likely to run in tandem with this domestic independence campaign, a second referendum on Scotland will surely be seen as an entirely unwelcome distraction in Westminster.

In what may become a battle between these two determined leaders, Sturgeon was first to reinforce her underlying motivation for offering a second Scottish independence vote.

"It is above all about informed choice...the option of 'no change' is no longer available."

[Featured Image by Yvonne Stewart Henderson/Shutterstock]