The U.K.—If You Can Believe It—May Soon Face Yet Another Referendum

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon makes a statement to the Scottish Parliament on Brexit and a second independence referendum, at Holyrood, central Edinburgh on April 24, 2019. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.K., which clearly hasn’t had its fill of referendums recently, may face another one in the next couple of years—this time about Scottish independence, again.

The last such referendum took place in 2014. It was fairly close—though not as close as the Brexit referendum that would follow two years later—with 55.3% of Scots voting against independence.

But a lot has changed since then, particularly thanks to Brexit. While 52% of Brits voted in 2016 for the U.K. to leave the European Union, the figure was only 38% in Scotland, where not a single constituency sided with Leave. And now the desire of Scots to remain in the EU is about to become a big political issue.

Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP)—which has held power in the Scottish Parliament for over a decade—announced Wednesday that she will try to organize a second Scottish independence referendum by 2021, if Brexit goes ahead.

“Scotland’s 62% vote to remain in the EU counted for nothing. Far from being an equal partner at Westminster, Scotland’s voice is listened to only if it chimes with the U.K. majority—if it doesn’t, we are outvoted and ignored,” the first minister told the Scottish Parliament. “I consider that a choice between Brexit and a future for Scotland as an independent, European nation should be offered in the lifetime of this Parliament. If Scotland is taken out of the EU, the option of a referendum on independence within that timescale must be open to us.”

The next Scottish Parliament election will be in 2021, so Sturgeon wants the referendum to take place in the next two years—assuming Brexit goes ahead.

Sturgeon’s path

Sturgeon said her government would try to introduce legislation by the end of this year that would lay out the rules for a referendum. After that, the British government in London would need to grant Scotland a so-called Section 30 order, giving it permission to hold a referendum.

The Scottish Parliament was formed two decades ago (after, yes, a referendum) and it has limited law-making abilities. Those abilities do not include the power to unilaterally conduct an independence referendum—hence the need for Westminster’s permission.

Sturgeon has previously asked British Prime Minister Theresa May, who has been in power since 2016, for a Section 30 order, and was turned down. Downing Street said Tuesday that May’s position has not changed, but Sturgeon said Wednesday that this position “will prove to be unsustainable.”

“By making progress with primary legislation first, we won’t squander valuable time now in a standoff with a U.K. government that may soon be out of office,” she said. “If we are successful in further growing the support and demand for independence–and I will say more later this week about how we build that case–then no U.K. government will be able to deny the will of the people or stop that will being expressed.”

The question now is whether the first minister can count on the Scottish public to back her up.

Mood shift

Polls since the 2014 independence referendum have almost all shown that Scots still narrowly favor remaining in the U.K., but there might be a change on the horizon. A month ago, the new pro-independence organization Progress Scotland reported the results of its first public polling, which indicated that the Brexit issue was changing Scots’ views on independence.

The poll suggested EU membership has become Scots’ most pressing concern and, out of those respondents who are still undecided on the independence issue, almost two-thirds said Brexit made Scottish independence more likely. In the case of a no-deal Brexit—which is still a possibility, though less likely thanks to the Brexit deadline’s postponement until Oct. 31—56% of those undecideds said they would be more likely to vote for independence from the U.K.

So what if Brexit takes place, the British government agrees to another independence referendum, Sturgeon successfully makes her case to the Scottish people, and the country breaks out of the United Kingdom? If that happens, there is still no guarantee that Scotland would get to be part of the EU again—but it probably would.

Scotland would certainly need to apply for EU membership, rather than gaining it automatically, and the question then is how hard a time it would then face from other EU member states.

Certain other EU countries also have regions where a section of the population favors secession, such as Catalonia in Spain and Sicily in Italy, making it possible that those countries would give Scotland a rough ride, in order to send a message to their separatists back home. That said, Spain’s government has indicated that it would not block Scotland’s path back into the EU—and Spain is the most important voice here, due to the strength of the Catalan secessionist movement.

Sturgeon said Wednesday that she still hopes Brexit can be stopped, which would put the Scottish independence question back onto the shelf for now. However, she said, “Brexit makes change for Scotland inevitable.” Time—and independent polling—will tell if the Scottish public agrees with her on that.

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