Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will set out a "route map" on Tuesday to a second independence referendum. In a 2014 referendum, 55 percent of voters in Scotland chose to stay in the UK – and much to the chagrin of Unionists, the Scottish government plans to hold another next October. But from Brexit to a scandal-plagued prime minister occupying Downing Street, a lot has changed since the last vote.
"After everything that has happened – Brexit, Covid, Boris Johnson – it is time to set out a different and better vision," Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared in a June 14 speech in Edinburgh outlining a “refreshed case for independence".
It’s no surprise that Sturgeon puts Brexit at the top of her list. Six years after the fateful referendum on Britain's EU membership, Scotland finds itself saddled with a hard Brexit that it did not support (62 percent of Scots voted, in vain, to stay in the bloc). "Brexit has ripped us out of the EU and the single market against our will, with massive damage to trade, living standards and public services," Sturgeon said in her speech.
'A much more complicated choice'
But although the bitter pill of an unwanted Brexit is a strong argument in favor of Scottish independence, it has also made matters more complex. If Scotland did become independent and managed to rejoin the EU, it is now extremely difficult to see how it could avoid an undesirable hard border with neighbou=ring England, at least for goods. The ongoing row over the Northern Ireland Protocol highlights the apparent impossibility of avoiding customs checks in such a scenario.
As Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, puts it: "The current Scottish government wishes to maintain regulatory alignment with the EU single market. As we know, that means a border, somewhere or other."
More broadly, Brexit means that Scots face "a bigger choice" in any future independence referendum, Curtice said. "Any referendum held now will be a choice between Scotland being an independent country and inside the European Union, or Scotland being inside the UK but outside the European Union," he explained. In short, "it's a much more nuanced choice, it’s a much more complicated choice".
Curtice went on to say: "Both sides have issues to address and arguments to construct that are relevant to the current situation, as opposed to the debate that we had nearly eight years ago. Because it's not the same choice. It's no longer, in the end, a debate about in or out – it’s a debate about in/out versus out/in."
Lessons from the pandemic
The lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic also cut both ways when it comes to Scottish independence. On the one hand, Scotland benefited from the UK-wide furlough scheme for those unable to go to work during lockdown, and later from the UK-wide procurement scheme to purchase Covid-19 vaccines. But with the four devolved nations of the UK being responsible for their own health policies, Scotland was able to diverge from England when it came to restrictions, with the exception of travel. Sturgeon gave regular televised briefings throughout the pandemic, much to the frustration of her political opponents. Yet for independence supporters, this was a foretaste of how things could be if Scotland were in charge of its own affairs.
Compared with Downing Street, Sturgeon generally took a more cautious approach to restrictions and was praised for her overall handling of the health crisis. In contrast, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a lax attitude to the virus from the outset – his government initially wanted to pursue a strategy of herd immunity – and later bowed to significant pressure from within his Conservative Party to lift restrictions as early as possible. The UK as a whole ended up with the highest death toll in Europe in terms of reported deaths during the first wave of the pandemic.
PM's hangover from 'partygate'
As for Johnson himself, he appears to be living on borrowed time following the "partygate" scandal, which saw him become the first sitting prime minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law when he was fined for breaching Covid restrictions. His refusal to resign over the lockdown-busting parties in and around 10 Downing Street leaves him increasingly vulnerable. The embattled premier survived a no-confidence vote on June 6, but last week his party lost two by-elections, including one in a previously safe Conservative seat.
Johnson, who has never been popular in Scotland, has a record-low approval rating of minus 71 percent there, according to a recent Ipsos poll. Most Scots did not vote for the current Conservative government in Westminster (Scotland only counts six Conservative MPs), which is pursuing an increasingly right-wing agenda. The contrast is stark with the Scottish National Party (SNP), a centre-left party that governs Scotland with the support of the Scottish Greens. As Sturgeon summarized it in her June 14 speech: "We have a prime minister with no democratic authority in Scotland, and no moral authority anywhere in the UK."
Scotland 'divided down the middle'
Despite the consequences of Brexit, Covid-19 and Johnson's record, voters remain evenly split on the issue of Scottish independence, with some recent polls putting "No" narrowly in the lead. "Basically the country's divided down the middle and has been since 2019," noted Curtice, who is also a polling expert.
Asked why support for independence is not higher at this stage, Curtice cited three possible reasons: "One, we haven’t had the debate that I’ve just been talking to you about. Two, quite a lot of the boost that there was to 'Yes' in the second half of 2020, early 2021 – which seemed to be driven primarily by perceptions of how Brexit was being handled – seems to have dissipated. And the third answer is that it's going to be much more difficult to shift public opinion this time because a lot of people made their minds up in 2014. So although there was quite a lot of shift in attitudes during the 2014 campaign, it will probably be more difficult to shift attitudes now."
As for the economy, the war in Ukraine has caused a rise in inflation that shows no sign of abating. UK inflation reached a 40-year high of 9.1 percent last month. In the Ipsos poll mentioned above, 30 percent of respondents listed the rising cost of living as the most important issue currently facing Scotland. Opposition parties in Scotland claim this is the worst possible time to be making plans for another referendum, for which the government in Edinburgh has allocated £20 million (€23.2 million). Meanwhile, with Scotland pledging to reach net zero emissions by 2045, uncertainty hangs over any new oil projects.
Finally, what about the current Scottish government's own record? Sturgeon has been in charge since 2014 – last month, she became Scotland's longest-serving first minister. Despite implementing some innovative policies, such as offering free access to sanitary products, the devolved government led by the SNP faces criticism for its record in office, notably on education and long hospital waiting lists following the pandemic.
But according to Curtice, people in Scotland are separating the government's record from the issue of independence. "At the moment at least, people's perceptions of how well the SNP have been running Scotland are proving to be irrelevant, because people are voting on the issue of independence," he said.
"Who knows who would run an independent Scotland?" he asked, adding: "The fundamental question that will face the SNP if independence is achieved is: What's the point in the SNP? Don't assume that the SNP is going to survive in its current form."
'Boris is not a permanent fixture'
For now, all eyes will be on Sturgeon's address to the Scottish parliament on Tuesday, in which she has vowed to unveil a "lawful" path to independence. There is speculation that to bypass Johnson’s continued refusal to give the official green light for a new vote, the first minister could announce an "advisory" or "consultative" referendum. That would be a risky move, as Unionists have vowed to boycott such a plebiscite.
But this may not be the end of the story. Indeed, Curtice insisted on the importance of looking ahead to the next general election.
"Boris is not a permanent fixture. And this current UK government has to face the electorate by the end of 2024. At the moment there is a fairly high chance that we will end up with a hung parliament. If there is a hung parliament, the Tories are stuck. They have frankly burned their boats with everybody, including the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party)."
Curtice continued: "So the question is: What leverage will the SNP have in a hung parliament? They're probably going to be the third-biggest party. If the SNP are the hinge party and Labour can only form a minority administration with the acquiescence of the SNP, then basically the SNP's price is – frankly, I can tell you it now – it's going to be some kind of referendum."
Whether Scots would then vote in favor of independence remains to be seen.