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“Stick with it Scotland,” say the billboards in Glasgow. It’s a slogan applying both to the continued need to keep wearing masks and to practice social distancing, as the country enters a phase of localised measures to restrict movement in the ongoing Covid-19 crisis after a comprehensive lockdown in spring and summer. But the slogan also suits the ongoing pressure from grass roots activists for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to resume in earnest her party’s continued struggle for independence.
This week in the Scottish Parliament’s soaring, high-modernist arts-and-craft setting in Holyrood, Sturgeon introduced her government’s agenda for the coming year, including plans to draft legislation allowing a new independence referendum. The First Minister had previously promised a new referendum in 2020, but the Covid-19 crisis necessitated both a postponement of the bill and a reckoning with growing tensions in the separatist movement.
While Quebec has always remained part of Canada, and successive referenda have revealed Catalonia’s desire to be independent from Spain, Scotland’s place in the Union is less settled. Nine years ago, Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) won a majority at Holyrood by promising a vote on separation from the United Kingdom. In 2014, the vote occurred — and Scotland became the only nation on earth to reject independence in a referendum, by a margin of 55 to 45.
Since then, there has scarcely been a time where Scotland wasn’t the subject of active political campaigns. Defeat paradoxically attracted new supporters to the SNP; there were UK elections in 2015, Scottish elections and the EU referendum in 2016, UK elections in 2017, and UK elections again in 2019.
And yet, despite the ongoing agitation for independence, and the growing political dominance in Scotland of the SNP, the First Minister finds herself boxed into a constitutional stalemate with the UK.
At the moment, the SNP holds power at almost every level of Scottish politics, from local councils to Holyrood. It has governed Scotland, in majority or minority administrations, since 2007. Since losing the 2014 referendum, it has seen its slate of Westminster seats dramatically increased. The independence campaign built a coalition of voters which see the SNP as the sole political vanguard for independence at the UK level, and every election UK and EU election has been a fresh opportunity to remind the Tory Westminster establishment that the SNP wants out.
The trouble is that there’s little agreement on how to leave.
Holding a referendum on independence can happen in roughly three ways. The first would see the UK Prime Minister accept a request for a referendum from the First Minister, and temporarily amend the powers of the Scottish Parliament to allow it to hold a vote – as happened in 2014. The second option is for the Scottish Parliament to legislate on its own initiative, presumably without the backing of the UK PM, and hold a vote by itself. In theory, this would be illegal, and akin to the 2017 Catalan referendum, which Spanish courts nullified. The third option would be something even more risky: a unilateral declaration of independence by the First Minister, perhaps provoked by civil unrest.
Nicola Sturgeon, in her capacity as the legally elected First Minister of Scotland, has been unambiguous in stating that she will only ever pursue a legal vote. But some in the independence movement are calling for a change in strategy, and applying pressure on Sturgeon to move more boldly toward a referendum.
Sturgeon maintains that securing consent for a referendum from the UK Prime Minister is the only viable path to independence, since the outcome of such a vote would need both national and international recognition to gain legitimacy. The scenes in Catalonia in 2017, where Spanish police were deployed to polling stations and the Spanish state embarked on a multi-year, international campaign of legal retribution against the Catalan government, give Sturgeon’s position more weight.
The pandemic has only strengthened Sturgeon’s authority. Her hands-on, personal management of the coronavirus has won plaudits across the political spectrum. With Boris Johnson as the control group, anyone could seem competent, but Sturgeon has arguably been the most consummate politician in the UK for six years now.
Sturgeon’s popularity has meant that support in Scotland for independence has been slowly growing. Since the pandemic hit, polls consistently suggest a majority in favour of Scottish succession, 53 to 47.
That prospect doesn’t just scare the right-wing press. In reality, almost all UK media outlets are pro-Union in their editorial stance, and lately their flag-clutching concern for the Union has been over the top. The left-leaning press views Scottish independence as a symptom of dysfunction in London’s politics, which can be remedied with some concessions. Awareness of the level of anger at the Union in Scotland is clearly lacking. They have failed to notice that – on Sturgeon’s own formulation – the only route to a new referendum runs through Number 10 Downing Street.
It’s hard to imagine the UK Prime Minister permitting a referendum that has any prospect of winning. When the previous referendum was agreed in 2012, polling for independence was untested, and the outcome of the 2014 vote emboldened David Cameron to embark on the hideously misguided 2016 EU referendum to mollify his own base. The Tories were crazy enough to allow that vote, but Scottish independence is different – even the lunatic fringe of the party tends to blanch at the idea of breaking up the Union.
The prospect of explaining to Mrs. Windsor that her Highland summer house at Balmoral might be repurposed as a museum of Celtic Progress tends to focus the mind.
Domestically, and especially within the SNP, anger is growing at the apparent inability, or unwillingness, of the party to achieve its sole unifying aim. Membership soared in the aftermath of 2014, as new cadres of activists and dismayed citizens joined in a pointed demand to send a message that the Scottish nationalists weren’t going away. Since then, grassroots activists have organised a series of very popular marches and rallies, but it was only last October that Sturgeon finally attended one. Instead of siding with the people in the streets, the First Minister has prioritised good governance as the means to independence, hoping to win over those outraged at the UK’s misdeeds and Johnson’s incompetence.
But patience is fraying. While the SNP courts voters who were previously unconvinced about independence, there is concern that previous supporters may lose enthusiasm for the long march ahead. Murmurs from SNP parliamentarians, calling for a more outspoken stance on independence in London and Edinburgh, have increased. There’s a growing sense that the current constitutional arrangement is a dead-end for the SNP, and increasing alarm there may not be an alternative plan.
In reality, it’s hard to imagine what such a plan would look like. The SNP have made plain their intention to win new supporters on the basis of caring, without partisanship, for Scotland. Essentially this positions Nicola Sturgeon as a Presidential figure, with the mantra most presidents have when elected: they govern for you, whether or not you voted for them.
The result is a political paradox. Polls show support for Scottish independence slowly going up, even as the First Minister delays the prospect of a new referendum, perhaps indefinitely. With elections to the Scottish Parliament in May 2021, the SNP is banking on another strong showing to demonstrate support for a poll. How long patience will last remains to be seen, but for now the agenda is being set by the UK’s constitutional process.
Simon Jones is a journalist based in Glasgow. He writes for Politico, Al Jazeera, Le Monde Diplomatique, and others.