Devolution, combined with error-strewn Westminster governance, has led to the growth of pro-independence sentiment north of the border. Could we witness the break-up of Britain over the next decade?
In 1995 George Robertson – then the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland – argued that the creation of a Scottish Parliament would quench the Scottish thirst for the decentralisation of power. Devolution, according to Robertson, would kill the idea of an independent Scotland “stone dead”. In the referendum which followed New Labour’s election in 1997, 74% of Scots voted in favour of a Scottish Parliament.
Twenty-five years later, the Scottish National Party (SNP) dominate both Holyrood and Scottish Westminster seats. The SNP have been the largest party in every Scottish Parliament election since 2007 and have doubled the number of seats they hold at Holyrood from thirty five in 1999 to sixty four today. The desire for Scottish independence seems to have grown, rather than having been killed, by the creation of the Scottish Parliament. Despite a narrow defeat at the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, Sturgeon is right when she claims that the repeated SNP victories are a mandate for a second independence referendum.
Deeper historical pressures are also mounting on the Union, further buttressing the case for Scottish independence. Scottish ruling elites signed up to the Act of Union in 1707 because they saw this as a way to secure great financial benefits, not least through the access partnership with England would provide them to a global Empire. But this is no longer the case; the UK is now a post-imperial state. The original motivation Scotland’s entry into the Union has disappeared, raising the question of whether the UK has outlived its usefulness. Post-imperial British governments have sought to maintain Britain’s global role. Margaret Thatcher sought to ‘internationalise’ Britain’s economy, principally through supporting the expansion of the City of London, but this led to a series of negative economic consequences – de-industrialisation, regional imbalance, a weak manufacturing base – which have historically fed into rising Scottish sentiment for self-governance.
There are however major obstacles to Scotland’s exit from the Union, none more glaring than the failed first referendum on Scottish Independence in 2014. This is the stick used to beat the SNP by Conservatives and Labour alike, as their repeated demands for a second vote are brushed to the edge of the British political agenda. Nevertheless, this hand wringing on the part of Westminster politicians has a shelf life.
The SNP’s power within Westminster is limited. There are only fifty-nine seats in Scotland, compared to almost 600 for the rest of the union. This consigns the SNP to the peripheries of Westminster, and makes it more difficult for them to force a second referendum, at least during the current Parliament where the Conservatives are in Downing Street.
What is the pathway towards a second Scottish independence referendum? Ironically, it runs through the Labour Party – the very institution which claimed they had consigned the case for independence to the dustbin of history. Labour in the past have performed very well in Scotland. However, with the SNP’s stranglehold on Scottish seats in Westminster, it is hard to see a future in which Labour wins an overall parliamentary majority. Therefore, it is likely that any future Labour government will rely upon a supply and confidence arrangement with the SNP, which is almost certain to have the promise of a second referendum attached to it. The irony of this is evident, as it was Labour who promised initially to kill Scottish nationalism by creating the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and it will be them who inevitably gamble the union to create a coalition and bring about Scottish independence some 30 years later.
Should Labour form the next government in a hung parliament – the current polling suggests this is the most likely outcome – then a second referendum is highly probable if not inevitable. Polling has remained extremely tight between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ since the first Independence Referendum. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to suspect that a second referendum could lead to a victory for the ‘Yes’ Campaign. This is for two main reasons: Brexit and COVID-19.
Gavin Esler asks the poignant question: in ‘taking back control’, “who is doing the taking? … Is it Britain, or England?” . This is an important distinction, as it is clear Scotland were dragged “kicking and screaming” out of the EU by English voters as they voted overwhelmingly (62%) to remain in 2016. This has deepened the already widening political and cultural chasm between the English and the Scottish. Brexit also fundamentally changes the wider political context, as the first independence referendum involved the pro-union campaign claiming that the only way to guarantee Scotland’s EU membership was by voting ‘No’. A little over two years later, and the UK was on its way out of the EU.
The differences in perception of the Scottish versus English handling of the pandemic have also contributed to Scottish Independence sentiment. 60% of voters across the UK have deemed the government of Boris Johnson incompetent, while 57% approve of Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic. The pandemic has exposed the pre-historical nature of Britain’s decaying political institutions, while the Scottish government has generally been viewed as a more competent manager of the pandemic and its fall-out.
Ironically, with the creation of the Scottish Parliament, Westminster created a Scotland that is more modern and more fit for purpose than the centralised United Kingdom parliament. In short, Holyrood is better adapted to the present times than Westminster, and the Scottish people know it.
It is for these reasons that it would be naive to think that Scottish nationalism is going to be ‘killed off’ anytime soon. The fissures created by devolution, the Scottish dismay at the incompetence and pre-modernity of the British political system, the deepening of British economic decline and the explicitly ‘English not British’ decision to leave the EU will be the death sentences for the union.
The prospect that Scotland could leave the union within in the next 15 years is a distinct possibility. The writing is on the wall for the union. With Scottish independence, the new composition of the Stormont assembly, it is not wholly unthinkable that Scotland’s Northern Irish and Welsh counterparts may eventually follow suit. The Disjointed Kingdom faces its last days. The question is when, not if, it might unravel.
This is the third and final part of a series of blogs by undergraduate students on the ‘Britain in the Global Economy’ 3rd year module, which is convened by Dr Scott Lavery at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield.