Scotland’s Independence Debate and the New UK Prime Minister

Dr Kirsty Hughes explores views on and prospects for Scottish independence, and the possible implications of Liz Truss as UK Prime Minister.

Eight years after the independence referendum in 2014, views on independence for Scotland are finally balanced. A Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times found 51% support for independence this July and 49% in favour, one month later, in August.

During this summer’s Conservative leadership campaign, Liz Truss insisted she would never let the UK ‘family’ be split up, nor allow another independence referendum. But Theresa May and Boris Johnson were equally opposed to another referendum. So will Truss as Prime Minister change the terms or tone of the independence debate?

Interestingly, in the August Panelbase poll, when respondents were asked if their views on independence would change if Liz Truss became Prime Minister, support for independence then went up to 52%. Yet it also hit 52% when prompted about a scenario where Boris Johnson remained Prime Minister. With the Tories currently polling around 20% in Scotland, it would seem reminding people about whoever is the current Conservative leader (or candidate) can be enough to prompt more support for independence.

Brexit is one of the most obvious and most major changes in the UK since 55% voted to stay in the UK in 2014, to 45% supporting independence – and independence voters are much more strongly pro-EU than those opposed to independence.

But another big change since 2014 is Labour no longer being the dominant party in Scotland. At the 2015 general election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) swept the board taking 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, and in the 2019 election the SNP won 48 seats. Labour’s Keir Starmer has insisted he will not do any deal with the SNP before or after the next general election, yet if pro-independence parties win over 50% of the vote, and Starmer is the new Prime Minister, the political dynamics will get interesting indeed.

Plans for Another Referendum

Last year’s Holyrood elections in May 2021 delivered another SNP government in Scotland, albeit narrowly short of a majority on their own, though having one with the support of Green MSPs. With both SNP and Greens committed to another independence referendum, the issue remains centre stage.

First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, raised the stakes at the end of June when she announced that, while her preference was for an agreed referendum through a Section 30 order with the UK government, in the absence of such agreement she would propose either to hold a vote through putting a referendum bill through Holyrood (with a target date for the vote of 19th October 2023) or treat the next general election as a referendum on independence.

She also announced that Scotland’s Lord Advocate would refer the question of whether the referendum bill lies within the scope of devolved powers, or is a reserved matter, to the Supreme Court. This hearing will now take place on 11 and 12 October (just a day after the SNP’s annual conference concludes), though the judgement will come later.

While many legal experts consider the Supreme Court is unlikely to find that such a bill can sit within Holyrood’s powers, this is not certain. Liz Truss caused a stir during the Conservative leadership campaign with her provocative comments that Nicola Sturgeon was an ‘attention-seeker’ who was best ignored – not the most prime ministerial comments towards the leader of Scotland’s devolved government.

But more substantively, a recent Sunday Times report suggested that, as Prime Minister, Truss may pass a bill that establishes that at least 50% of the electorate must support independence for it to happen in any future referendum. Whether this is a likely Truss approach, time will tell. But in the less likely case that the Supreme Court finds in favour of Holyrood’s right to hold a referendum, it is surely probable that Truss will seek to introduce a bill to take such a right away again – irrespective of the additional boost such behaviour may give to independence.

Making the Case for Independence

While the legal and political rows continue over Scotland’s right to hold another independence referendum, in our avowedly voluntary union, the substantive arguments for and against independence rumble on. The Scottish government restarted work within the civil service on the case for independence in autumn 2021, after suspending it during the pandemic.

The first two papers in the government’s ‘Building a New Scotland’ series came out in June and July. ‘Solid but dull’ might be the best summary of these two papers. There is, as yet, no clarity from the Scottish government, for example, on what the Scotland-England border would be like or its economic implications if Scotland were an independent country in the EU or on other crunch issues for the independence debate. Rather, the first paper pointed out how much better, than the UK, several smaller states did in their economic performance while the second paper focused on the range of problems associated with staying in the UK.

More papers are promised, and are expected to tackle some of the trickier issues such as the border, currency, EU membership and more. For now, the debate seems remarkably quiet rather than energetic, even though ever present in Scotland’s politics.

Yet the polls might shift – just as they did two years ago when Scottish voters were much more reassured by Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to managing the pandemic than Boris Johnson’s, and support for independence went over 50% (including in one poll to 59%). If Truss is increasingly unpopular in Scotland, and/or the economy crashes, or UK-EU relations worsen, then support for independence could grow.

General Election as a Quasi-Referendum

And even if the Supreme Court does not allow a referendum next year, Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to treating the next general election as a referendum will not go away. This has been leapt on by opposition parties as somehow ‘undemocratic’ and not feasible. But if pro-independence parties choose to state in their manifestos and campaigns that they will interpret a vote for them as a direct vote for independence, then they are free to do that. Just as opposition parties are free to focus their election campaigns on other issues.

With the next election due in 2024, there are just two years for the SNP to increase support to win this gamble in labelling the election a referendum. The August Panelbase poll, referred to at the start of this blog, puts the SNP on 44% and the pro-independence Greens on 3% – way ahead of Labour on 23% and the Tories on 20%. Yet with 8% for the LibDems, that poll gives pro-union parties 51% of the vote.

If the SNP fail, with other pro-independence parties, to get over the 50% target they have set, then the very opposition politicians currently insisting an election as a quasi-referendum is invalid, will suddenly be likely to declare that the SNP have had their second vote and lost again.

And if the pro-independence parties get to just over 50%, the question then will be what the political impact of that is. A result of say 50.5% for independence will look not so different to the current balanced split in public opinion. Political arguments will be sharp indeed in the face of an independence vote over 50% in 2024. But unless that vote is substantially more – towards the mid-50s or more – its political impact may be weakened.

If opinion shifts upwards on independence before the election, and is then underlined and reinforced in the actual vote, this will strongly shift the political pressure for recognition of Scotland’s right to self-determination, irrespective of Prime Minister Truss’s views (if at that point she still is Prime Minister).

Yet, ultimately, the Scottish government will need to translate support for independence into a political agreement with the UK government to make independence happen. A unilateral declaration of independence is not on the agenda – and the Scottish government is entirely aware that to get recognition as an independent state, and a rapid accession to the EU, it will need an agreed divorce, and recognition, from the (rest of the) UK.

The UK is set for a bumpy two years, politically and economically, until the next election. And Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK, and the relationship between UK and Scottish governments, will surely be one part of that.  Boris Johnson talked of a ‘muscular unionism’ but only partially delivered on that. If Liz Truss goes for a more confrontational approach, as it looks like she may, this will surely be counter-productive from a unionist point of view. The independence polls may currently be stuck on 50:50. But they may not stay there.

Dr Kirsty Hughes is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and formerly Director, and founder, of the Scottish Centre on European Relations.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo by chris robert on Unsplash.

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