Glasgow, Scotland – If the UK government was in any doubt about the determination of Scotland’s first minister to make good on a promise to go for a second independence referendum in the advent of a so-called “hard Brexit”, then it was disabused earlier this week.
When Nicola Sturgeon on March 13 announced her intention to seek permission from the regional parliament to hold the referendum between 2018 and 2019, it had followed months of intractable negotiations between the UK government and the regional government on the terms of Scotland’s Brexit deal.
While the UK voted by a narrow majority to “leave” the European Union in last year’s plebiscite, Scotland voted overwhelmingly to “remain” – and Sturgeon’s call for a separate Scottish deal ran headlong into British Prime Minister Theresa May’s UK-wide approach to quitting all vestiges of the EU project.
Relations between Sturgeon’s Scottish government, which has repeatedly appealed to London to help retain the semi-autonomous region’s place within the EU single market after the UK’s exit from the EU, and May’s British government, which has always asserted Britain’s Brexit vote as being politically non-divisible, reached a new low following Sturgeon’s announcement.
Indeed, after the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader made known her wish to offer Scotland a choice between a “hard Brexit” and becoming an independent country with the ability to establish “our own relationship with Europe”, May accused her of “playing politics with the future of the [UK]”. The British premier then followed up, on March 16, by rebuffing Sturgeon’s demands stating, “now is not the time” for another poll.
“I thought that Sturgeon took the stage of British politics in an audacious move … that struck at the heart of the British establishment,” said Scottish writer Gerry Hassan, the author of a new political book, Scotland the Bold.
“It then begged many questions of the nature of the independence offer and the processes and the politics that follow from that.”
A second independence referendum
For most observers, Scotland is now a very different place to the one that voted on its constitutional future in 2014, choosing to reject sovereignty by 55 percent to 45 percent.
The UK and therefore Scotland's economy is not in its healthiest state as it was in 2014
While Brexit has put Scotland on a path towards the EU exit door – against the wishes of its electorate – the steep collapse in the global oil price and slump in oil revenues from the North Sea has made Scotland’s economic prospects far from certain.
“The UK and therefore Scotland’s economy is not in its healthiest state as it was in 2014,” said James Mitchell, a professor at the University of Edinburgh’s Academy of Government.
“And Scotland’s relative position with the UK has worsened … But another major factor is Brexit – it’s a process that we’re just at the beginning of and exactly where [the UK] will be in two or three years time is unclear, other than it’s not going to be a happy place economically.”
But how much has Brexit really been responsible for putting Scotland on the brink of a second independence referendum?
With opinion polls commonly putting support for Scottish sovereignty at somewhere around the 40 to 50 percent mark, independence campaigners have lamented what they see as a hard Brexit-driven lurch to the right in British politics that has ushered in a wave of xenophobic and anti-immigration sentiments.
For Sturgeon, the now-remote prospect of Scotland retaining its single market status – and her contention that losing it would adversely affect Scottish jobs – has made her call for another plebiscite unavoidable.
For pro-unionists, however, Sturgeon’s Scottish independence “obsession” has simply found a convenient outlet in Britain’s Brexit debate that will, they say, only add to further constitutional wrangling and uncertainty.
“The type of Brexit being imagined by the British government does make it easier for Nicola Sturgeon [to call another referendum],” said The Spectator magazine’s Scotland editor, Alex Massie.
“But if it wasn’t this, then it might be something else – when it comes to finding reasons for [another poll], she’s in a good position to do so.”
Massie told Al Jazeera that while politically, the pro-independence camp “have an argument that is stronger, in some ways, than in 2014, about Scotland being in control of its own destiny, of it being a different kind of place and political culture to the rest of the UK”, it is negated by “economic and practical arguments, which are harder to make now than was the case over two years ago”.
That said, with Sturgeon’s apparent wish to see an independent Scotland assume its place in the EU, Scotland’s SNP government has said it has found a warmer reception from EU politicians compared with 2014 when few – if any – wanted to get involved in its independence debate.
‘An independent Scotland’
Earlier this week, for instance, Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told the BBC news that while an independent Scotland would have to apply for EU membership, negotiations would be “easy” because it “fulfils all the legal needs” of membership.
Yet, while any attempt by an independent Scotland to join the EU remains open to speculation – Spain, with its own independence movement in Catalonia, is widely believed to be wary of the proposition – Mitchell from the University of Edinburgh told Al Jazeera that its status as a potential EU member state is greater now than ever before.
“Scotland will be outside the EU without any shadow of a doubt within the UK,” said the academic. He also stated that 2014 pro-union assertions, which contended that the only way to guarantee Scotland’s place within the EU was to vote ‘no’ to independence, had now “been turned on its head”.
“There is a new warmth coming from Europe to the notion of an independent Scotland in the EU, and that is a factor that has played into the debate.”
The mechanisms for triggering another referendum will begin at the Scottish Parliament next week when Scotland’s five parties will be asked to endorse the wishes of the nationalist first minister.
While the chamber’s three pro-unionist parties, Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats, will almost certainly vote to block the plans, the combined pro-independence majority of the SNP and the Scottish Greens will be likely to see the motion passed. It will then be up to the British government to grant the Scottish government the legal right to hold another independence poll – which, in light of May’s opposition, looks fraught with uncertainty – as the UK seeks to negotiate its way out of the EU.
So, two-and-half years on from Scotland’s last constitutional decision, what will likely frame the coming debate if and when a new referendum date is agreed?
Hassan said that it will most probably pitch the “very challenging” economic case for independence against the “bankruptcy of the British offer”.
“It will be head and heart – a hope for the future versus the risk-averse one that involves all such debates,” he added.
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi