Wednesday

8th Feb 2023

Opinion

How May election could see an independent Scotland by 2023

  • Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon. The big question for the 6 May election is if her Scottish National Party will win a majority outright, or govern with the pro-independence Greens (Photo: Scottish government/Flickr)

Scotland will next month elect a new parliament. Clever politicians never miss a chance to inform voters that the next election is the most important yet.

Nevertheless, it is true to say that this vote on 6 May will be significant, for it will reshape the defining issue of Scottish politics: independence.

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  • Sturgeon and former SNP leader Alex Salmond, in happier times. Salmond has now founded a new breakaway independence party, Alba (Photo: SNP/Flickr)

The independence question permeates practically every aspect of Scotland's political debate.

Brexit, despite now having been concluded, has become fused with Scottish independence. The pandemic is framed simultaneously in polar opposite terms: as proof that Scotland is better off as part of the UK, and as evidence that Scotland needs independence to succeed.

Making the issue of the day part of the independence debate is not new. The difference is that public opinion has been changing.

Between June 2020 and February 2021, 22 consecutive opinion polls indicated majorities in favour of Scottish independence, when undecided voters were excluded. That kind of sustained support for statehood is unprecedented in modern Scottish history.

Since March, polls have shown that opinion on independence is fairly evenly split. Those currently undecided voters (around 10% of the electorate, according to surveys) could ultimately determine the outcome of a future referendum on independence.

Public opinion could develop in a new direction yet. In any event, it is clear that attitudes to independence have shifted since voters rejected it by 55 percent to 45 percent in Scotland's 2014 referendum.

Multiple factors are at play. Surveys suggest that people approve significantly more of Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon than UK prime minister Boris Johnson in their respective responses to the pandemic.

Johnson, in his policies and his style, is fairly unpopular in Scotland.

Brexit - not over, north of the Border

Most important, however, is Brexit.

Scotland decisively rejected Brexit in the UK's 2016 EU referendum and at every subsequent election. Support for European integration is widespread across the Scottish political mainstream.

With Brexit formally completed and a thin EU-UK relationship taking the place of former membership, it is hardly surprising that more Scottish voters appear receptive to independence than before.

Since the Brexit vote, Sturgeon has sought twice to reach agreement with the UK government on holding a new independence referendum – in 2017 with Theresa May and in 2019 with Johnson – without success. This May's election will be the next chapter in the story.

Polls have suggested for months that Sturgeon's Scottish National Party (SNP) will win the Scottish parliament election. The SNP, a centrist, pro-independence and pro-EU party, has governed Scotland uninterrupted since 2007.

The real question is not whether the SNP finishes first, but whether it secures a parliamentary majority. In the outgoing parliament, the SNP ran a minority government.

The matter of a majority will be central to the future direction of the independence debate.

Should the SNP win a parliamentary majority, or if the Scottish parliament has a "pro-independence majority" of the SNP and the Scottish Greens combined, the new Scottish government will claim a mandate to hold a independence referendum.

It was the SNP's majority victory at the 2011 Scottish election which paved the way for the 2014 independence referendum.

Back then, former UK prime minister David Cameron accepted the argument – in practice, if not in principle – and worked with former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond and Sturgeon (then deputy first minister) to deliver the 2014 vote.

Sturgeon vs Salmond

Now, Sturgeon and Salmond are political adversaries.

At the start of the campaign, Salmond announced his return to politics as leader of the newly-formed Alba Party (Alba means "Scotland" in Gaelic).

It is too early to tell how this split may affect the pro-independence side in the long term.

If elected, Sturgeon has committed to holding a new referendum "in the first half of the next parliament". That would a mean a vote before the end of 2023.

Johnson has argued that a referendum would be "irrelevant", "unnecessary" and "divisive".

However, he has recently refrained from saying that he would not agree to one after the election.

In the end, what matters is how the two leaders respond once the Scottish election results are clear.

Despite their political animosity, in the face of a pro-independence parliamentary victory, Sturgeon and Johnson may yet reach agreement on staging a new referendum.

If so, the UK government could well demand more conditions, such as on the referendum question, franchise and timing, than it did for the 2014 vote.

For her part, Sturgeon will remain under great pressure from her party's membership and the wider grassroots to hold a referendum sooner rather than later.

A future referendum would be far from a straight rerun of 2014. Brexit has fundamentally altered some of the most important questions, including prospective Scottish EU membership and the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Scotland's independence debate has much longer to run. The results of this Scottish election will give us the clearest indication to date of where it may be headed.

Author bio

Anthony Salamone is managing director of European Merchants, a Scottish political analysis firm. He is a member of the Edinburgh Europa Institute.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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