It is difficult to avoid the idea that drastic shifts have occurred within the United Kingdom in recent months. From the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended over a stable and unified UK, to the resignation of Brexit architect Boris Johnson and short-lived Prime Minister Liz Truss’ dangerous gamble to implement libertarian economics. More recently, the debate over the continuation of the UK as we know it has renewed.
On November 23, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that Scotland cannot hold a referendum without England’s approval, dashing Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to have another independence referendum in October 2023.
While an obvious blow to Scottish independence hopes, does this really mean the Scottish nationalists will sit by and accept the result? After all, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has struggled greatly for the last eight years to push for independence, and its support for this has spearheaded the party into power in Scotland.
Fruitless independence bids
For centuries, Scotland has played an important role as a member of the United Kingdom. After centuries of conflict between England and Scotland, both countries and Wales formed the Kingdom of Great Britain per the 1707 Act of Union and later absorbed Ireland into the United Kingdom.
Scotland has one of the most devolved parliamentary systems in the world due to ongoing legislation, which began in 1999 under Tony Blair’s auspices. As a result, the Scottish parliament can legislate on many policies, including health, education, tax, housing, and justice. On the other hand, matters like foreign policy, defence, and most economic issues are reserved for the Westminster parliament in London.
Still, there was that dramatic referendum in 2014 in which the ‘no’ vote towards independence won by 55 percent against the 45 percent ‘yes’ vote. Despite the referendum’s failure, the pro-independence SNP has held most constituencies in Scotland since the 2015 general election, showing support for Scottish independence was far from not extinguished.
Yet since the ‘no’ vote, we’ve had Brexit, which has cut off member states like Scotland and Northern Ireland from the European Union (EU) and presented more political challenges, such as the Irish border question. Scotland has also found itself opposed to many of England’s policies, including the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and the Conservative Party’s austerity and public spending cuts.
Advocates of Scottish independence suggest that the country could thrive economically outside the UK, particularly if it could regain its EU membership – which most Scottish voters supported. However, detractors have warned that Scotland’s bid for the EU may take many years to complete, leading to economic vulnerability and the loss of vital financial support from London.
London is also reticent to let Scotland go. Firstly, there are economic reasons, as Scotland holds nearly seven percent of the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) and could also claim the North Sea oil reserves off the Scottish coast. Secondly, the concept of the United Kingdom has boosted London’s soft power globally, and the break-up of the union might hinder this. Finally, in terms of defence, not only does Scotland contribute to the British army, but London’s nuclear deterrent is also located in Scotland – over which London would want to retain the status quo amid rising tensions with Russia.
Is there another chance?
With the law on its side, London can keep saying no to a referendum. Yet this could portray a narrative in Scotland that London is not on their side. Moreover, considering the Supreme Court’s ruling, the SNP may use this to further support their allegation, with some critics already claiming that London is “undemocratic”.
Indeed, SNP leader Keith Brown claimed that London is “scared” of allowing a second referendum as it knows it will lose. Such claims will aim to rally support behind Scottish independence, as Sturgeon said she would treat the next election as a de-facto referendum – echoing Catalonia’s claims for independence from Spain in 2017.
Previous Prime Minister Liz Truss displayed contempt for the SNP and Scottish independence claims in August, saying that the best way to deal with Nicola Sturgeon is “ignore her” and called her an “attention seeker”. Yet, while the more pragmatic and incumbent Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to do more to help “level up” and offer benefits to the Scottish people, provocative attitudes like Truss’ are more likely to linger in the minds and rally Scottish independence advocates.
Perhaps the most tangible chance the SNP has for gaining independence is by joining a coalition government. With the party sweeping up parliamentary seats in Westminster since 2015, it has been dubbed as a potential ally of the opposition Labour Party, prompting suggestions of a coalition government. After all, Labour was previously the most popular party in Scotland until the SNP’s rise.
Although the Labour party is dominating opinion polls under current leader Keir Starmer and is tipped to win a landslide majority victory in the next election, failure to do so could push him to seek a coalition government, with the SNP being a potential ally. In such an event, the SNP could hold the negotiating cards and say it would only form a coalition should the Labour Party promise another independence referendum.
While the chances of this happening are slim, and with Scottish opinion polls currently not showing clear support for independence, a referendum victory is unlikely to happen soon.
Future of the union
Although the SNP’s ambitions seem bleak, this does not mean the UK won’t face future challenges to the union.
Attitudes can undoubtedly change. In Northern Ireland, polls show support for unification with the Republic of Ireland has risen in recent years. The unresolved Northern Ireland border issue has exacerbated this, as the Republic of Ireland is an EU member while Northern Ireland isn’t due to its UK membership. Observers note that a sense of feeling “British” has waned in Northern Ireland in the past ten years. Like Scotland, most of Northern Ireland’s population had voted to remain in the EU, just as its neighbour had.
Moreover, a 2021 census showed that more Northern Irish people identify as Catholic instead of Protestant for the first time. This division had defined tensions with its traditionally Catholic neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, and suggests further separation from the traditionally protestant UK. And with growing youth support for unification with Ireland, it is not surprising that a growing number of Northern Irish people see Irish unity as likely within the next 20 years.
In Wales, even though the government is historically closer to London and the odds of independence are even more remote, the leading Welsh party – Plaid Cymru – has also argued for positive possibilities of secession from the UK. And should pro-independence voices grow louder in Scotland and Northern Ireland, similar voices may continue in Wales.
Given these shifts we have seen in the past decade – from Brexit, a Conservative government that is diverging from its member states, and Queen Elizabeth II’s passing – successive UK governments are not only tasked with securing a place for Britain in the world, but also ensuring that the United Kingdom as we know it can survive.
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