The case for a second referendum
Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon, has renewed her call for a second referendum on Scottish independence, arguing that it is time to offer the prospect of progress on the issue. She said that the UK government’s handling of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that Scotland needs to have the power to make its own decisions and chart its own course. She also accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of being “frightened of democracy” and ignoring the will of the Scottish people, who voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum.
Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum, or Indyref2, is based on the premise that there has been a material change of circumstances since the first referendum in 2014, when 55% of Scots voted to stay in the UK. She claims that the SNP’s landslide victory in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, where it won 64 out of 129 seats, gave her a mandate to pursue another vote on independence. She also points to the consistent lead of the pro-independence camp in opinion polls, which reached a record high of 58% in October 2020.
However, the UK government has repeatedly rejected Sturgeon’s request for a second referendum, saying that the 2014 vote was a “once in a generation” event and that the focus should be on recovering from the pandemic and building a strong union. Johnson has also argued that leaving the UK would be a disaster for Scotland, as it would lose the economic, security and cultural benefits of being part of a larger country. He has also warned that breaking up the UK would jeopardize the successful rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine, which has been a joint effort of the four nations.
The legal and political hurdles
The main obstacle to holding a second referendum on Scottish independence is the legal authority to do so. Under the Scotland Act 1998, which devolved some powers to the Scottish Parliament, the constitution is a reserved matter, meaning that only the UK Parliament can legislate on it. Therefore, the Scottish Parliament would need the consent of the UK government to hold a legally binding referendum, as it did in 2014, when the two sides signed the Edinburgh Agreement that set out the terms and conditions of the vote.
However, the SNP has argued that it has the right to hold a referendum without the UK government’s permission, based on the principle of popular sovereignty, which states that the people of Scotland are the ultimate source of political power. The SNP has also suggested that it could pass its own legislation to hold a referendum, and challenge the UK government to stop it in court. Alternatively, the SNP could hold a consultative or advisory referendum, which would not be legally binding, but could put political pressure on the UK government to recognize the result.
The UK government, on the other hand, has maintained that any referendum on Scottish independence must be legal, fair and agreed by both sides, and that it will not grant a Section 30 order, which is the legal mechanism to transfer the power to hold a referendum to the Scottish Parliament. The UK government has also indicated that it would challenge any unilateral attempt by the SNP to hold a referendum in court, and that it would not accept the outcome of an illegal or unauthorized vote.
The legal and political stalemate between the two sides has raised the possibility of a constitutional crisis, as well as the risk of civil unrest and legal challenges. Some experts have suggested that the only way to resolve the impasse is through dialogue and compromise, and that both sides should respect the democratic will of the Scottish people, whatever it may be.
The implications for Scotland and the UK
The outcome of a second referendum on Scottish independence would have profound implications for both Scotland and the UK, as well as for their relations with the EU and the rest of the world. If Scotland voted to leave the UK, it would face a complex and lengthy process of negotiating the terms of its separation, such as the division of assets and liabilities, the currency, the border, the trade arrangements, the security and defense cooperation, and the status of Scottish citizens living in the rest of the UK, and vice versa. Scotland would also have to apply to join the EU as a new member state, which would require the unanimous approval of all 27 member states, some of which may have reservations about encouraging separatist movements in their own countries. Scotland would also have to meet the EU’s economic and political criteria, and adopt the euro as its currency.
If Scotland voted to remain in the UK, it would still face some challenges and uncertainties, such as the impact of Brexit on its economy, society and culture, and the future of the devolution settlement, which grants Scotland some autonomy within the UK. The SNP has argued that Brexit has undermined the devolution framework, as the UK government has taken back some powers from the Scottish Parliament, such as in the areas of agriculture, fisheries and environmental standards, without its consent. The SNP has also claimed that the UK government has ignored the interests and views of Scotland in the Brexit negotiations and the internal market legislation. The UK government, however, has defended its actions as necessary to protect the integrity and prosperity of the UK, and to ensure a smooth and orderly exit from the EU.
The question of Scottish independence is not only a matter of constitutional and legal debate, but also of emotional and cultural identity. For some Scots, independence is a way of expressing their distinctiveness and aspirations as a nation, and of pursuing a more progressive and outward-looking vision of their future. For others, remaining in the UK is a way of preserving their historical and familial ties, and of benefiting from the stability and solidarity of a larger and more diverse country. The decision that the Scottish people will make, if and when they get another chance to vote on their destiny, will shape the fate of Scotland and the UK for generations to come.