The dominant narrative among the British media, whether in England or Scotland, will undoubtedly be that the Scottish National Party (SNP) have announced a second Scottish independence referendum due to sheer ideological zeal.
This is a gross rewriting of history and misrepresentation of the present circumstances Scotland and Britain finds themselves in. If Scotland ends up voting to dismantle the Union, it will have been an ‘inside job’, so to speak – the British government will have been the main architect of the Union’s destruction.
The Scottish government has been left with no other choice than to seek to legislate for a second referendum on Scottish independence. In the most immediate sense, it all began with Brexit. Unlike England and Wales, the vote to remain in the European Union in Scotland was overwhelming (62%), meaning that there was a clear imbalance between the aspiration of Scots and the rest of the UK.
While the SNP government and Yes movement accepted defeat at the time of the last independence referendum less than three years ago – after a comprehensive (though not as comprehensive as many imagined) victory for the No campaign – the door to a second independence referendum was always left open.
Despite then First Minister Alex Salmond calling the referendum a ‘once in a generation opportunity’, this concession was always conditioned by the democratic will of Scots to have another referendum if they chose to do so, as well as something extraordinary happening that might make one necessary.
Well, something extraordinary did happen. During the 2016 Scottish parliament elections, the SNP pledged in their manifesto that another referendum would be probable “if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.” The SNP won the election with an unprecedented 47% share of the vote on that promise, while Scotland is now being dragged out of the EU against its will.
Even before the EU referendum, Westminster could have taken measures to ensure that the Scottish independence question was averted. David Cameron could have followed the lead of most democracies that contain devolved nations or federal areas by ensuring that something as important as the UK’s membership of the EU could only be binding if the referendum passed in every constituent nation of the UK. This is something the SNP argued for to no avail.
During the announcement of the second referendum, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon referenced that she was at first encouraged by Theresa May’s commitment last July to “seek agreement with devolved administrations on a UK wide approach before triggering Article 50”, but May never followed through on this.
When the SNP put forward its proposals for addressing the disparity between Scotland and England on the issue, it offered significant concessions. The SNP did not seek to override the democratic will of voters in England and Wales, nor did it even seek to stop Scotland, as part of the UK, from leaving the EU, but rather sought to negotiate on terms that might allow Scotland to retain access to the European Single Market (ESM).
But far from the rhetorical ecumenism of July 2016, the proposals were, in the words of Sturgeon, met with a “wall of intransigence” from May’s government – who had decided that the xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric that fed Brexit was more important than maintaining British access to the world’s largest market.
The democratic will of Scotland would not even be reckoned with in any manner by the British government. The Scottish government, therefore, had no other option but to act in the best interests of Scotland – the only viable way of ensuring these interests, of maintaining Scotland’s access to the ESM, is through Scotland remaining in Europe as an independent nation.
However, the disparity between Scotland and England over Europe merely hints at a wider ideological disparity that has been developing over at least the past couple of decades. It began with the Scottish rejection of the Labour Party, motivated by Blair’s repackaged Thatcherism and opposition to the Iraq war, which culminated in the SNP winning power in 2007 on a left of Labour programme. This was followed in 2011 by the popular, progressive SNP government being re-elected by an unprecedented landslide.
This paved the way for the independence referendum, which, contrary to the idea that it was galvanised by an irrational pulse of romantic Scottish nationalism, was motivated more by a rejection of Tory austerity and the question of the democratic deficit vis-à-vis Scotland in the Union. Scotland has just one Tory MP, yet it is still subject to Tory policies that it overwhelmingly rejected.
And while devolution allows Scotland to have limited powers, the budget allocated to Scotland by Westminster has been cut due to Tory austerity. In other words, the ideological programme of a government Scotland didn’t vote for is imposed on Scotland and undermines Scotland’s public services and the progressive programme of its government.
During the last referendum, the Liberals, Labour and Tories put their names behind a ‘Vow’ that should Scotland remain in the Union it would be given near-federalism and its voice would be that of an “equal partner”.
Given the ‘Vow’ was never delivered, something which partly led to the SNP annihilating Labour in the 2015 Westminster election, and that May has ignored Scotland’s voice regarding something as vital as EU membership, the political and constitutional components that led to the first independence referendum have not only been ignored by Westminster, but they’ve been exacerbated by it.
With a Labour Party that has collapsed as a viable opposition and alternative to the Tory government, Britain is facing becoming a veritable one-party Tory state, fuelled by increasingly radicalised right-wing English nationalism, for the foreseeable future – Scottish independence, as a response to this, is entirely logical. But its success is far from a given.
Many of the weakness of independence that blighted the campaign in 2014 continue to exist, particularly logistical issues such as currency. However, the key problem for Scottish separatists is the question of plunging Scots, already rocked by the uncertainties of Brexit, into more uncertainties by arguing to tear up the status quo of the Union.
It is these very same status quo Unionists who are the ones that must be convinced that the status quo of a progressive, European Scotland can only be maintained through Scottish independence. More fundamentally, it’s a question of Scottish self-determination pitted against a British government that seems to have only contempt for it.