Wednesday

30th Nov 2022

Opinion

Sturgeon's 2023 'referendum' gamble for Scotland

  • Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, launching the independence poll plan last week in Edinburgh (Photo: Scottish Government/Flickr)
Listen to article

When Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, launched her government's new campaign for Scottish independence in Edinburgh last week, she sought to re-energise Scotland's defining debate.

The question of whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become a separate state is the cornerstone, however imperfect, repetitive, and consuming, of modern Scottish politics.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

That debate never diminished after Scotland's 2014 independence referendum. Major events — Brexit, the pandemic and now the Ukraine war, among others — become integrated into the constitutional debate. They change the context, but are mainly used to express the same arguments in new ways.

Yet, for the Scottish government and the leadership of Sturgeon's ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), the subject of independence had been in a form of abeyance since the onset of the pandemic.

No longer. In her launch speech, Sturgeon declared plainly that "it is time to talk about independence."

It is an unspoken truth that the SNP is somewhat overfond of freshly-minted government publications as ready props. True-to-form, the independence campaign launch featured a new Scottish government report, comparing the UK's economic and social record with those of other European states — and arguing, unsurprisingly, that Scotland should be independent as a result.

This report is the first of what will be a series addressing core aspects of the independence debate, including currency, trade and EU membership. Together, they are intended to constitute the Scottish government's new prospectus for realising independence in the post-Brexit world.

Since 2017, and mostly due to Brexit, the Scottish government has argued that a new independence referendum should take place. After last May's Scottish parliamentary election, the SNP pledged to hold a referendum by the end of 2023. It was suggested last week that it has October 2023 in mind.

Listening to the SNP and the Scottish Green Party, which supports the former in government, the impression is that a new referendum is an immutable certainty and independence a close prospect.

London says 'no'

In reality, that is only half of the picture. The UK government has opposed the premise of a second referendum for as long as the Scottish government has advocated it. Their dispute seems intractable, and a unilateral campaign launch is not going to generate a resolution.

This referendum impasse raises foundational questions: on the nature of power within the British state, the suitability of an amorphous constitution and the locus of democratic authority for Scotland.

However, regardless of those, the practicalities remain the same. For Scotland to have a viable pathway to independence, both the Scottish and UK governments would have to cooperate closely at every stage. To become a new state, Scotland would need the support of its old one.

That is the fact which some in the Scottish independence movement want most to ignore. Incredulity is the response to any suggestion that Scotland's future statehood would be subject to the realities of international relations — and the necessity for the UK state to endorse Scottish independence as well.

In 2014, London backed the referendum and both sides agreed to implement its result. Today, that kind of consensus is non-existent. In its absence, the Scottish government has decided to stare down the UK government and, by means unknown, force it to accept a vote.

This referendum strategy is a massive gamble on the part of the SNP.

At the campaign launch, Sturgeon signalled that the Scottish government was prepared to hold a unilateral referendum. She did not set out a plan for reaching agreement with the UK government. Instead of seeking to build bridges with UK prime minister Boris Johnson — the one person whose support is most needed for a referendum — Sturgeon lampooned his democracy credentials.

For now, it is totally unclear how the Scottish government expects to translate its adversarial posture into an endorsement of a referendum by the UK government. The SNP and the Greens could surely help themselves by approaching Johnson more like the foreign leader that they want him to become via independence — with tact, not insults.

The SNP's leadership feels the impatience within its membership and the wider independence movement for a referendum. If the party entered the next Scottish parliament election in 2026 without having held a referendum, the reception from traditional supporters could be perilously frosty.

The Scottish public remains fairly evenly split on the question of independence, according to polls, with the pro-UK side slightly ahead. If a vote did happen, neither side would start with a commanding lead.

The chances of a bone fide Scottish independence referendum taking place in 2023 remain uncertain. The Scottish government may well refine its approach in the months ahead.

For the moment, however, it is on a collision course with the UK government. It would be in the best interests of all concerned to find an alternative route.

Author bio

Anthony Salamone is managing director of European Merchants, a Scottish political analysis firm in Edinburgh.

Disclaimer

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

For Scotland, the debate on Brexit is still not over

Scotland's EU accession process could reasonably take four to five years. If the referendum were in held 2023 and the transition to statehood took three years, Scotland could join the EU at the start of the next decade.

How May election could see an independent Scotland by 2023

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

Johnson quits, leaving Brexit headaches to successor

British prime minister Boris Johnson has resigned as Conservative party leader, starting a race among Conservative MPs to replace him as prime minister but leaving a range of issues — Brexit, Northern Ireland, and Scottish independence — for his successor.

A missed opportunity in Kazakhstan

Tokayev received congratulations on his election victory from presidents Xi, Putin, Erdogan, and Lukashenko. However, the phone in the Akorda, Kazakhstan's presidential palace, did not ring with congratulatory calls from Berlin, Paris, London, or Washington.

News in Brief

  1. 'Pro-Kremlin group' in EU Parliament cyberattack
  2. Ukraine will decide on any peace talks, Borrell says
  3. Germany blocks sale of chip factory to Chinese subsidiary
  4. Strikes and protests over cost-of-living grip Greece, Belgium
  5. Liberal MEPs want Musk quizzed in parliament
  6. Bulgarian policeman shot dead at Turkish border
  7. 89 people allowed to disembark in Italy, aid group says
  8. UN chief tells world: Cooperate on climate or perish

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  3. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  4. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  5. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos

Latest News

  1. EU Commission proposes suspending billions to Hungary
  2. EU: Russian assets to be returned in case of peace treaty
  3. Frontex leadership candidates grilled by MEPs
  4. Portugal was poised to scrap 'Golden Visas' - why didn't it?
  5. Why the EU asbestos directive revision ... needs revising
  6. Nato renews membership vow to Ukraine
  7. Catalan spyware victims demand justice
  8. Is the overwhelming critique of Qatar hypocritical?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  2. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  6. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us