Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom?
Scots voted “no” to that question eight years ago. But Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants to put it to them again next year: She announced a new independence vote on Oct. 19, 2023.
She knows the bid to take her case to the U.K. Supreme Court is a long shot. And a referendum wouldn’t necessarily be in her Scottish National Party’s best interest — at current polling, the SNP would lose the vote, and what then would the point be of the party at all?
Yet Sturgeon’s move showcases her trademark clever tactics. She may not want the actual independence battle just yet, but she clearly would welcome a fight about having one. A legal and political dust-up is a way of rallying the SNP troops, capitalizing on how much Scots love to hate on Boris Johnson and distracting from the country’s deeper problems.
To hold a referendum, the SNP needs the permission of the U.K. government in the form of a temporary transfer of powers known as a Section 30 order. Johnson has already made clear he has no intention of handing that over. So Sturgeon’s taking the case to the U.K.’s Supreme Court. Her insistence that the referendum be legal and constitutional to protect Scotland’s international reputation neatly trolls Johnson, who is ripping up the U.K.’s treaty with the European Union in Northern Ireland. If the Court refuses the SNP a referendum without government approval, Sturgeon says the next general election will become a de facto referendum on independence (whatever that means as the SNP interpret every vote as a referendum mandate anyhow).
Scots rejected independence by a margin of 55% to 45% in a vote that was billed as a once-in-a-generation event in 2014. Brexit provided the SNP with an excuse for a second shot, since 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU. Sturgeon argued that the 2021 elections gave pro-independence parties a mandate to push for another referendum during this parliamentary period, once the COVID-19 crisis had passed. With economic and other problems mounting, no wonder she’s decided to make her move.
But Brexit has undoubtedly also made the case much more complicated. The thorny issues of 2014 will need to be revisited, including questions around the costs of separation and how Scotland’s future defense needs would be secured; but now there is also the matter of a large land border with England, the destination for nearly 60% of Scottish exports.
Nor is the EU likely to fast-track a Scottish membership bid. The bloc is already struggling with enlargement and has just added Ukraine and Moldova to five existing candidates for membership. Even though Scotland’s laws and product standards will already be EU compliant, re-entry would require negotiations that would likely take years.
And then there’s Scotland’s economy. For most of the time since powers were devolved to a newly created Scottish Parliament in 1998, spending was higher and tax revenues lower than the U.K. average. The Institute of Fiscal Studies’ David Phillips has written that the implicit Scottish deficit averaged 9.2% compared with 3.1% for the U.K. as a whole between 2014/2015 and 2019/2020.
The rise in oil revenues and the government’s windfall tax on energy companies is serendipitous timing for Sturgeon, as that should reduce the deficit more than earlier forecasts, perhaps even lower than that of the U.K. as a whole. But as Phillips notes, if prices and revenues fall back, this will be a temporary improvement.
The bigger problem is structural. Despite world-class universities and strength in certain sectors such as energy and finance, Scotland’s productivity lags the U.K.’s, and R&D expenditure is low in comparison with the U.K. average and by developed country standards. The SNP blames Scotland’s economic troubles on Westminster and argues that economic growth will follow independence. But Sturgeon hasn’t yet put forward a convincing case for how.
There are certainly ways in which more fiscal control could allow Scotland to cut taxes and lighten regulatory burdens, but little sign that’s the direction of travel. Its more liberal stance toward immigration would certainly help. But the SNP has presided over government spending that is substantially larger than England’s as a share of income, and the costs of exiting the union and meeting the EU’s accession criteria would likely mean austerity for Scots.
Sturgeon knows independence doesn’t fire up Scots the way it did a short time ago, so picking a fight now is partly about rallying supporters and building the case again. It’s not clear it will work that way. In a May Survation poll, less than one-third of Scottish voters (29%) said there should another referendum before the end of 2023; even many SNP voters were not enthusiastic.
The first minister once said a referendum shouldn’t be held again until it had the support of 60% of the public. Yet today 58% of respondents say they would vote to remain part of the union, with only 42% saying they would vote to leave. The cause is most popular among younger voters, so time may be on the SNP’s side here. But for now, the issues that most incense voters are health services, the economy, the pandemic recovery and education. All of those are areas that would suffer with independence, at least in the short-term.
There’s an argument that Johnson should call Sturgeon’s bluff and allow a referendum, but that’s risky. The prime minister is the SNP’s not-so-secret weapon. Every time she gets a tough question about the costs of independence, she repeats his name like an incantation. When the SNP comes under fire for mismanagement or misbehavior, Sturgeon just points to the Westminster Tories.
Sturgeon’s demand for a vote puts Brexit-supporting Tories in the highly uncomfortable position of arguing that it was right to take back control from the EU but it’s wrong for Scotland to want the same. Sturgeon knows it’s not an easy one for the pro-union Labour Party either, which probably needs a revival in Scotland (and has a fighting chance again with the talented Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar) to have a shot at a governing majority.
The loser in all this politicking is likely to be the Scots. There is a place for referendums in a democracy, but recent history suggests that when it comes to major constitutional questions, the yes-no vote can easily be hijacked and become a cipher for public discontent.
The campaign itself would be costly, time-consuming and hugely divisive. There may be a time when Scotland’s place in the union deserves a rethink if that’s what Scots really want — with a negotiation first, followed by a confirmation vote after voters have the full picture. But Scotland has so many more pressing economic and social issues requiring attention and needs good governance more than it needs a referendum. It’s hard to think of a worse moment to rustle up such a high-priced distraction.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics.