This year’s Scottish National Party Conference has been predictable, but none the less impactful. After the vote to leave the European Union it was made clear by Nicola Sturgeon that independence was back on the table. Now she is asking everyone to take a seat, in the form of a threat.
The prospect of a second referendum loomed over the EU campaign, with many on the leave side dismissing the prospect considering a vote was held on this exact matter in 2014. According to the SNP, leaving the EU has changed the terms of the debate and nullified the result of the previous referendum. As Nicola Sturgeon put it, ‘”the UK we voted to stay part of in 2014 is not the UK we now face the prospect of”.
Regardless of your opinion on Scottish independence, this is now somewhat true. Prior to 23 June the UK was an active member of the world’s largest bloc, with access to the world’s largest single market and had its voice amplified by both of these situations. Now the future could look extremely different.
What specific issue about leaving could trigger a second referendum? Is it the potential of a more xenophobic UK, a less powerful voice on the world stage? Apparently not. Out of all the potential risks, Sturgeon specifically pointed out the issue of a ‘Hard Brexit‘, better known as leaving the single market. There is no denying that the single market is important to Scotland’s economy, Sturgeon even claimed on BBC Radio that 300,000 jobs were dependent on the single market. If the Tory government rejects these efforts, if it insists on taking Scotland down a path that hurts our economy, costs jobs, lowers our living standards and damages our reputation as an open, welcoming, diverse country, then be in no doubt Scotland must have the ability to choose a better future.
Given this you can see why the SNP may want to start making threats to the British government. Essentially if they can whip up enough fear that Scotland may become an independent nation then it could skew the negotiations in favour of a ‘soft Brexit’.
Many people believe that this, rather than total independence, is the point of the new independence rhetoric. This is further substantiated by the fact that apparent lack of a majority of Scotland actually in favour of independence, as such should a referendum be called the SNP are not guaranteed a win. Sturgeon herself has in fact said on multiple occasions that she does not necessarily want independence right now. Instead she wants ‘influence’.
Influence has taken a whole new relevance in British politics after the 2015 election. Due to the small Conservative majority in parliament all that needs to be done to effect the outcome of political decisions is to influence around 20 Tory MPs.
Considering that many Tories were actually in favour of remaining, they may now be more susceptible to influence than before. When you combine this with the fact that there is no majority in the Commons for actually leaving the EU at all it gives Sturgeon a unique position, one that could potentially allow her to actually challenge the government. She could very well get what she wants if she plays her cards right, and Scottish independence is a very good card to have.
Now although this consultation is likely to be a threat to give Sturgeon influence and help her steer the government towards a ‘soft Brexit’ what are the odds of her actually winning an independence referendum.
Leaving the EU may have actually made it more difficult to leave the UK. This is because the last independence campaign met its end in economics. Alex Salmond, the former First Minister of Scotland, couldn’t answer questions such as whether Scotland would keep the pound, whether businesses could move to England or if oil was a sufficient driver for an independent Scottish economy. Given that leaving the EU will bring significant shock to the entire UK economy and there is no guarantee that the EU would even take a newly independent Scotland back these questions have become harder to answer.
Does Scotland perhaps want to damage its economy by leaving the UK to maybe not get accepted into the EU? Or if they did would it make up for lost business from England? Considering oil prices have halved over the last year the SNP can no longer claim that oil will be their economic saviour. If they weren’t part of the UK, Scotland would have been economically decimated as the oil price collapsed. These economic questions are hard than ever before to answer.
Political changes since 2014 should also be considered. We have a new government. One which is surprisingly popular among the Scottish people. Theresa May has a positive rating in Scotland, and after last year’s local elections the Scottish Tories are now second in Scotland, putting Labour into third. The leader of the Scottish Tories, Ruth Davidson, is tied with Sturgeon approval ratings. It will be harder for the SNP to convince the Scots to leave if they actually like the PM and the leader of the party pushing for Scotland to stay.
Although this makes the prospect of Scottish independence seem unlikely, the British government may not want to get too comfortable after nearly losing the 2014 referendum. As a result the threat of independence, although unlikely, should still be taken seriously.