Battle Lines Drawn: The Beginning of the End for the United Kingdom or for Nicola Sturgeon?


The Scottish Parliament has just backed Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second independence referendum with MSPs voting 69 to 59 in favour, despite Theresa May’s response that “now is not the time”. After the divisive 2014 referendum resulting in a narrow ‘No’ (55.3%), it was clear that this constitutional question would not be put to bed. Indeed, the SNP gained 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in the 2015 general election, and won the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, falling just 2 seats short of a third consecutive overall majority. The separatist threat was persistent, with Brexit providing the “significant and material” change in circumstances the SNP pledged would mandate for a second referendum. The proposed referendum would take place between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019, when they hope will be a clearer image of what post-Brexit Britain will look like. However, the UK Government is ruling out another referendum anytime soon with Scottish Secretary David Mundell suggesting another referendum cannot be held until the Scottish people are well informed of the new relationship; in other words, 2020 at the earliest. While the formal indyref 2 campaign remains a long way off, an informal campaign has now begun whether Theresa May likes it or not, and both her and Sturgeon’s careers hang in the balance.

By exploiting the Brexit vote to justify another referendum, Sturgeon has, perhaps unwisely, shifted the battle lines of the independence debate to be a choice between two unions. The SNP will seek to focus the debate on the democratic deficit of Scotland being “dragged out of the EU against their will”, after Scotland voted 62% in favour of remain. However, the debate will inevitably shift to one where the Scottish people must ask themselves ‘which union is more beneficial to Scotland: The United Kingdom or the EU?’

Economically, Sturgeon will have to justify why Scotland should leave a union worth four times as much in trade (£49.8bn) in favour of one worth much less (£12.3bn); why ditching the pound in favour of the euro is a good idea; and why, in light of Scotland’s £15bn deficit (the largest in Europe), re-joining the EU to have Greek-style austerity imposed upon them is a future Scotland would want. Considering the Scottish publics deep-rooted opposition to “Tory Austerity”, the idea of them so happily accepting the imposition of “austerity-on-steroids” from the EU is a delusion. The EU requires members to aim for a budget deficit of no more than 3pc of GDP, far lower than Scotland’s 9.5pc. While an argument can be made for an independent Scotland borrowing to plug the £15bn deficit, the tab currently settled by the UK, Sturgeon has removed this option from the table by mistakenly shifting the referendum debate to be a choice between two unions. Arguably the separatists lost the 2014 referendum on the economy and, throwing the diving oil price into the debate, the economic case for a Scotland outside of the UK but in the EU is increasingly dire.

Politically, Sturgeon will have to make a case for replacing Westminster, a place she feels too ignored and distant, in favour of the EU and its institutions, where the Scottish will have even less influence and feel even more distant. She will have to make a case for yielding sovereignty to the EU, and for sacrificing powers that have just been repatriated to Westminster and devolved to Holyrood. These powers may include agriculture and fisheries, the ability for Scotland to represent itself in foreign affairs and to make its own trade deals. With factions within the SNP and 36% of their voters backing Leave in the Brexit referendum, this will likely rile traditional separatist support. Sturgeon will be faced with growing divisions in the nationalist movement on EU membership, threatening to undermine her new campaign for independence or even her leadership as Prime Minister in an independent Scotland.

While Theresa May and the government have taken a risk by rejecting the Scottish Parliament’s calls for another referendum until after Brexit has been completed, 2020 at the earliest, they hope that public opinion in Scotland is on their side. Polls suggest that there has been no significant increase in support for independence, and even less so for having another referendum so soon. Sturgeon on the other hand will hope to capitalise on the unwillingness of Downing Street to give in to the demands of Holyrood in the hopes of banging the independence drum.

Should Sturgeon successfully hoodwink Scotland out of the United Kingdom in favour of re-joining the European Union, she will still be plagued by these questions as she attempts to negotiate her way back into the block of 27. Worse still, she will be faced with a fragile block reluctant to accept Scotland’s deficit, one that is nervous of fuelling separatism within current member states, and a block with seemingly little to gain from admitting an independent Scotland besides “one-upmanship” on a divorced UK.

The success of Sturgeon and the separatist movement hinges on the failure of Brexit negotiations. Should Theresa May successfully steer the British ship to a better deal, one that includes access to the single market, the repatriation of powers to Westminster and Holyrood, and the building of a truly global Britain, then the idea of leaving the UK in favour of the EU will seem unattractive. In other words, if Theresa May makes a success of Brexit and satisfies the nation, then Sturgeon’s case for leaving the UK in favour of the EU will fall apart, and support for independence and for the SNP will decline. Sturgeon has tied her hands by rolling the dice and committing to a second referendum before the Brexit negotiations even begin. Should she lose she will be forced to resign, and with the loss of two referendums within a few years of each other it is likely that the separatist cause would die with her – at least for another generation. Meanwhile Theresa May will have proven herself with renewed support to her premiership, and the Conservatives, presenting themselves as the party of unionism led by the popular Ruth Davidson, will continue to climb. If, on the other hand, Theresa May makes a “dog’s dinner” of Brexit negotiations and the fortunes for a UK outside of the EU take a turn for the worse, then the separatist cause will be energised with the campaign pitched as “saving Scotland from May’s Brexit cliff-edge”. Scotland would likely vote for independence with Nicola Sturgeon becoming its first Prime Minister, and Theresa May will be forced to resign becoming known as the Prime Minister who fluffed up Brexit and lost Scotland, spelling the end of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the careers of both Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon rest upon the success or failure of Brexit, and after indyref 2 only one will be left standing.

Theresa May, in order to save the union, will have to win over the 62% of Remainers in Scotland by making a success of Brexit. She must negotiate a Brexit that benefits Scotland and one that casts doubts on the benefits of leaving the UK in order to re-join the EU. The survival of the United Kingdom rests on the success of Brexit, and rests on the shoulders of Theresa May.

Sturgeon, addressing the media after this momentous vote, could barely look journalists in the eye; she knows that the weight of history is on her shoulders, and both her career and the separatist cause are on the line. This time, it really will be a “once in a generation opportunity”.

With Scotland finding itself torn between two unions, only time will tell whether it is Sturgeon or the United Kingdom which survives. After all, a week is a long time in politics, and if indyref 2 takes place after 2021, we may be looking at a very different Scottish Parliament, one heavily influenced by the Brexit negotiations.

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