Sunday

28th Nov 2021

Opinion

An SNP win won't mean a 2023 independence referendum

  • The Quebec example in the 1980s and 1990s show that if you call and lose an independence referendum twice - you don't get a third chance (Photo: Scottish Government)

The only question at the 6 May Scottish Parliament elections is not whether the Scottish National Party will win - but by how much?

The SNP stated in its "roadmap to an independence referendum" in January that it plans to organise a second legal referendum after the pandemic, should there be a new pro-independence majority in Holyrood.

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The Scottish first minister and and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has stated she would prefer for this so-called '#indyref2' to take place by the middle of the new parliament's term, i.e. by the end of 2023.

In what can only be described as a tumultuous decade for British politics, the plebiscite saga on this island nation seems far from over.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly said that the UK government would refuse any requests for devolving to Holyrood the powers needed for holding an indyref2 legally (legally called a Section 30 order, previously granted to organise the independence referendum of 2014.)

Johnson's argument is that the 2014 referendum, when the Scots voted 55 percent to 45 percent in favour of staying in the UK, was held under the understanding that it would be a "once in a generation" event.

That is too simplistic.

How people define "a generation" is up for debate - while the UK government considers it a period of about 40 years, others could argue a decade fits the criteria.

Furthermore, the SNP's position is that the London government's position is unsustainable, as it could not deny the people of Scotland their democratically-expressed will and that it will have to bow to public pressure.

Former Conservative prime minister John Major himself stated last year that to deny Scotland another referendum would only result in further fuelling the separatist cause.

Failing all else, the Scottish government could opt to test in court the legality of organising a referendum without the consent from Westminster.

Highly unlikely

Yet, it is highly unlikely there will be an indyref2 in the coming two years, and the true reason for this is that the Scottish government will not rush to call for it.

This may appear counterintuitive, especially considering consecutive surveys from different pollsters showed that, since the summer of 2020, steep gains were made for the option of an independent Scotland, averaging at about 55 percent.

One October 2020 Ipsos-Mori survey even found an unprecedented 59 percent.

What's more, this was the first time ever that polls in Scotland were showing a majority for independence for several months in a row. It came as a result of the positive ratings for the Scottish government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic - in contrast to the poorly-rated UK government's response. With healthcare being a devolved matter, the crisis provided the Scottish government with an opportunity to shine.

'Must-win' scenario

However, more recent polls according to WhatScotlandThinks show support down to a precarious 51 percent. A victory for the pro-independence option is in no way certain in the near future.

And if there is one thing the SNP wants more than to hold an independence referendum, it is to win that referendum.

Sturgeon announced her plans to call for an indyref2 in early 2017, after the UK voted to leave the EU, while a majority in Scotland voted to remain. Sturgeon argued that Brexit represented a significant change in circumstances which warranted the need for a new vote on independence.

The significant loss of seats in the UK parliament by the SNP in the 2017 general election, however, forced the Scottish government to re-evaluate the public support and timeline for a new referendum. The SNP became aware that hastiness in calling a referendum in the immediate aftermath of Brexit could backfire, instead of pay dividends.

There was a heightened sense of awareness that there can be no mistakes made with the timing of the new referendum. Sturgeon had claimed she was determined to call an indyref2 as early as 2020, during the campaign for the 2019 UK election.

The SNP did then win significantly more seats at Westminster in 2019 than in 2017, allowing them to claim they had a mandate to forge ahead with their demand for a new vote on sovereignty.

However, public support for independence was still not at the 50 percent threshold and, while the first minister publicly protested against the continued opposition by the UK government on the issue, she also shied away from naming specific timelines for the potential referendum.

50-50

While without a doubt Brexit has reignited the debate on the state of the union, and the management of the pandemic has given validity to the effectiveness of Scottish self-governance, and the gap between unionist and independence voters has been closed, it is still a 50-50 split - at best.

As things stand, a second independence referendum would come down to a nail-biting photo finish. Sturgeon and the SNP must be calculating that they could garner increased support once the campaign officially begins, and the issue gains momentum.

Under Alex Salmond's leadership, the SNP was able to do exactly that - pushing support for independence from around 33 percent in November 2013 (when they officially launched the white paper outlining a future of an independent Scotland) to 45 percent at the time of the actual referendum in September 2014.

Although the campaign did not bring them a win, it far closer than most had expected the independence option to achieve.

However, there are no guarantees that pattern would be repeated, and British politics in recent years has proven that it is foolish to make assumptions on voting outcomes.

Voter-fatigue

Voter fatigue is a factor that also would be playing a part in this unpredictability. Between UK general elections, referenda, Scottish Parliament elections and Scottish local elections, an independence referendum in 2023 would be the 10th vote put in front of the Scottish people since 2014.

To place the life mission of the SNP's leadership in the hands of luck would be an unreasonable choice.

Quebec

Here, the Scottish government can learn from the Quebec case, when the francophone Canadian province pushed for independence and held unsuccessful referenda on the issue, in 1980 and 1995.

This shows a repeat of an independence referendum is achievable under the right circumstances, however, should independence be rejected on a plebiscite a second time, third chances are unlikely.

The issue would be legitimately settled, and possibly not only for a generation. The Scottish nationalist movement would not survive a second defeat in such a crucial poll.

It follows logically that a second referendum would only be called by the SNP when there is a visible and consistent majority in favour among the Scottish electorate.

And such a majority does not exist at the present. While it certainly would not be impossible to cross the needed 50% threshold of support, posing that question in the next two years would be a high-risk gamble for the SNP.

Author bio

Mare Ushkovska a Global Fellow of the Council for European Studies, a former diplomat with the Macedonian embassy in the UK, and the author of a PhD on Scotland and Catalonia.

Disclaimer

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

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