Do Scottish nationalists really want another referendum now?

Momentum is currently with the unionists and the SNP and Green Party know this.

A saltire flag and Union Jack flutter in the wind
Scotland's saltire flag and Union Jack flutter in the wind in Glasgow [File: Jeff J Mitchell/ Getty Images]

A deal struck this summer between two pro-independence Scottish parties, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Green Party, has caused many to question whether a second independence referendum could be looming.

Scotland had the chance to leave the union when the United Kingdom government granted a legally recognised referendum in 2014. But seven years later, it seems the debate has not ended.

Scotland has shared a long and often turbulent history with the rest of the UK, having had the same monarch as England since 1603, when England’s Queen Elizabeth I, who had no children, passed the crown to her relative King James of Scotland.

The subsequent political union with the UK in 1707 led to the loss of Scotland’s own parliament, which has become a source of lingering resentment as power was ceded to a capital 534km (332 miles) away.

There are many reasons why this resentment transformed into a push for independence in recent decades. One of these began with the free economic reforms of the then Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. While the UK economy gradually improved relative to the 1970’s, it led to the restructuring of the economy, including the loss of a third of Scotland’s manufacturing facilities and, with them, many jobs. Scots responded by punishing the pro-union Conservatives at the polls. In 1983, the Conservatives had been the second-largest party in Scotland with 21 of the 71 seats. By 1997, they failed to win a single seat. It was only in 2017 that there was once again more than one Scottish Conservative MP.

These policies and others heightened the sense that decisions affecting Scotland were being made in the south of England.

The other pro-union party in Scotland, the Labour party, had a strategy to make up for this democracy deficit. It promised to hold a referendum on devolution, which would give Scotland its own parliament and government with some tax-raising powers and more of a say on domestic policies such as those on health and education.

The Labour party, whose founder Keir Hardie was Scottish, had dominated Scottish politics since World War II. Despite it floating the idea of devolution in the 1960s, successive attempts by Labour governments to push through devolution reforms during the 1970s stalled due to inter-party disagreements over whether it would help or hinder unionism.

When the Conservative Party came to power in 1979, it vehemently opposed any transfer of power from Westminster. So it was only when Labour won a landslide general election victory in 1997, that devolution re-emerged as a possibility.

In late 1997, five months after Labour formed a government, a devolution referendum was held. Seventy-five percent voted in favour and a new Scottish Parliament was formed in 1999.

Devolution, however, was not the magic solution to the push for independence that unionists had hoped it would be. In fact, it made that push even stronger.

Under the leadership of Alex Salmond and then Nicola Sturgeon, the pro-independence SNP has been remarkably successful at winning Scottish parliamentary seats – it has led the Scottish government and been the largest party in the Scottish Parliament since 2007.

When, in 2011, the SNP won an outright majority in the Scottish elections, it demanded a referendum on independence.

The then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron took a gamble and decided to hold one, fearing that if a London-based government blocked a Scottish vote, it would strengthen the case for independence in the long term. The hope was that a straightforward binary choice to be “in or out” would steer most Scots towards remaining.

This proved correct, and in 2014 the unionists won the referendum with 55 percent of the votes. But it also proved to be divisive – pitting neighbours against each other and paralysing domestic politics for months.

Despite this defeat, independence supporters continue to find reasons to demand another referendum, the most potent being Brexit. SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon often highlights that Scots have been forced to leave the European Union against their will. Given that 62 percent of Scottish voters chose to remain in the EU, compared with 48 percent overall in the UK, there is some legitimacy to this argument.

However, it also has a flaw; namely that it is odd that Scottish nationalists so focused on regaining sovereignty should be willing to relinquish it to the EU.

Then there is also the fact that ahead of the 2014 referendum, those on both sides of the debate described it as a “once in a generation” vote.

The UK government has the power to simply not grant another referendum, and the current Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been clear that he will not entertain such a vote.

If Scotland’s nationalists are contemplating a unilateral independence referendum, they could look to Spain and Catalonia as an example of how badly wrong this could go.

When, in 2017, the northeastern region of Catalonia demanded a referendum, Spain’s central government vetoed it. Mass protests followed and the region held a referendum without Madrid’s consent that autumn. When the separatists won the vote, which was boycotted by the unionists, a constitutional crisis was sparked.

The local parliament moved to declare unilateral independence 26 days after the referendum. The following day, the central Spanish government responded by dissolving the regional parliament and taking direct control of Catalonia.

Nine regional separatist leaders were arrested on charges of sedition, misuse of public funds and disobedience. They were found guilty and given sentences ranging from nine to 13 years in prison.

Catalonia’s case study may cause even the most ardent Scottish nationalist to pause for thought.

But even if the UK government granted Scotland another referendum, it is unclear whether the separatists would win it. In 2014, unionists won in part due to the economic uncertainty of leaving the rest of the UK.

Arguably, the SNP’s desire to rejoin the EU in the case of independence could cause even more economic uncertainty as a trade border would have to be imposed between England and Scotland, disrupting daily lives and businesses.

The leaders of both the SNP and the Green Party are well aware of this, so are dragging their heels on pushing for another vote. But this is causing fractures within the wider nationalist movement. The former SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has formed his own independence party, the Alba Party, attracting followers who are frustrated with the SNP’s cautious approach.

Momentum is also currently with the unionists. According to an October YouGov poll, 53 percent of Scots believed they would be worse off if Scotland left the UK, with just 11 percent saying it would be better off.

So wherever the separatists go, whether they insist on a second recognised referendum or arrange one unilaterally, they will find themselves stuck.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.