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Scottish independence

How could a second referendum on Scottish independence happen?

Newly elected leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) John Swinney delivers his acceptance speech
After the 2024 UK general election saw only 9 SNP MPs elected, SNP leader John Swinney acknowledged that they had “failed to convince people of the urgency of independence.”

The Scottish electorate rejected independence by a margin of 55% to 45% in a referendum held on 18 September 2014. The independence question rose back up the agenda following the result of the EU referendum in June 2016, where 62% of Scottish voters backed Remain. 

In the 2021 Scottish parliament election, the SNP and Scottish Greens, who both support independence, won a combined 72 out of 129 seats.

However, the 2024 UK general election saw only 9 SNP MPs elected. SNP leader John Swinney acknowledged that they had “failed to convince people of the urgency of independence.” 28 Grant A, ‘John Swinney to rethink independence strategy after disastrous election result’, The Scotsman, 5 July 2024, retrieved 8 July 2024, www.scotsman.com/news/politics/john-swinney-to-rethink-independence-strategy-after-disastrous-election-result-4692996

Where do the Scottish parties stand on independence?

The pro-independence parties represented in the Scottish parliament are the SNP, Scottish Greens, and Alba, who collectively form a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament.

In August 2021, the SNP and the Scottish Greens announced a cooperation agreement which included a joint commitment to securing “Scotland’s future as an independent nation in its own right.” 29 ‘Draft cooperation agreement between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party Parliamentary Group’, 25 August 2021, www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-government-and-scottish-green-party-cooperation-agreement/.  However, in April 2024, then First Minister Humza Yousaf ended the agreement. The SNP now lead a minority government at Holyrood.

In their 2021 Scottish election manifestos, the Scottish Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties all reiterated their opposition to a second independence referendum.

At the 2024 UK general election, the SNP manifesto stated that if the party won a majority of seats the Scottish Government would be “empowered to begin immediate negotiations with the UK government”. The Scottish Labour manifesto reiterated that the party “does not support independence or another referendum”. The Scottish Conservatives called on voters to “close the lid” on the SNP’s campaign for independence.

Following the 2024 general election there are 37 Scottish Labour, 9 SNP, 5 Scottish Conservative and 6 Scottish Liberal Democrats MPs at Westminster. This marked the first election since 2010 at which unionist candidates won a majority of Scottish seats. 

Following this election, SNP leader John Swinney acknowledged that his party’s independence strategy would need to be rethought. 30 Grant A, ‘John Swinney to rethink independence strategy after disastrous election result’, The Scotsman, 5 July 2024, retrieved 8 July 2024, www.scotsman.com/news/politics/john-swinney-to-rethink-independence-strategy-after-disastrous-election-result-4692996

Does the Scottish public support independence?

Opinion poll data shows that Scotland is almost evenly divided on the question of independence, with No narrowly ahead of Yes in most recent polls.

Support for independence has fluctuated over recent years, without either Yes or No ever establishing a decisive lead in the polls. Support for independence was at its highest in 2020 but fell back below 50% prior to the May 2021 Scottish parliament election.

Support for Scottish Independence

Most polls have replicated the Yes/No question asked in 2014. However, a few polls have used a Remain/Leave question similar to the one asked in the EU referendum, and these  have typically shown lower support for independence.

Does the Scottish parliament have the power to hold another independence referendum?

The Scottish parliament cannot hold another independence referendum without the UK Parliament passing legislation to enable this. 

The legislative powers of the Scottish parliament are set out in the Scotland Act 1998. This legislation specifies that the Scottish parliament cannot pass legislation that relates to various “reserved” matters including “the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England." 31 Scotland Act 1998, c.46, s5

In 2014, the power to hold the first referendum was transferred to the Scottish parliament after agreement on the terms of the vote was reached between the UK and Scottish governments. 32 ‘Agreement between the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government on a referendum for independence for Scotland’, 15, October 2012, assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/313612/scottish_referendum_agree.  The UK parliament passed a piece of legislation called a ‘section 30 order’ – which empowered the Scottish parliament to legislate for the referendum. However, this power was devolved on a temporary basis: the order specified that the vote must take place before 31 December 2014, following which the power expired.

In June 2022, Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention to hold a referendum on 19 October 2023 and asked the Lord Advocate, Scotland’s highest law officer, to seek the Supreme Court’s ruling on whether it would be within devolved legislative competence. 33 Scottish government, ‘Next steps in independence referendum set out’, www.gov.scot/news/next-steps-in-independence-referendum-set-out/.  The Supreme Court ruled in November 2022 that the Scottish government’s proposed independence referendum bill was outside the Scottish parliament’s powers.

The court assessed whether the referendum bill would “relate to” the union in terms of its “purpose and effect”. Its judgement stated “it is plain that a bill which makes provision for a referendum on independence – on ending the union – has more than a loose or consequential connection with the union.” 34 Reference by the Lord Advocate of devolution issues under paragraph 34 of Schedule 6 to the Scotland Act 1998, Supreme Court, para 82, www.supremecourt.uk/cases/uksc-2022-0098.html.

What rules would govern how an independence referendum would be held?

If a second referendum were to be held, the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020 would set the rules for holding the poll, unless otherwise agreed by the Scottish and UK governments. The Act broadly replicates the legal framework for referendums held by the UK government, as set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

The Electoral Commission would be given a statutory role, overseeing the conduct of the poll and the regulation of referendum campaigners, including designating lead referendum campaigners and testing the “intelligibility” of the proposed referendum question.

The Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020 provides that the franchise for any future referendum (on any subject) held by the Scottish government will be the same as the franchise for Scottish parliament elections.

Following the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Act 2020, this means that anyone aged 16 or over, who is legally resident in Scotland regardless of nationality, and who is on the Scottish local government electoral register, would be entitled to vote. The 2020 legislation also extended the right to vote to prisoners serving sentences of less than 12 months.

When could a second referendum on Scottish independence take place?

The Scottish government had planned to hold a referendum on 19 October 2023. However, this was prevented by the Supreme Court’s judgement. Any future referendum would require agreement between the UK and Scottish governments on its terms and timing. 

The first independence referendum took place three years and four months after the SNP won a majority for independence.

Path to the first Scottish independence referendum

If Scotland voted Yes to independence, what would happen next?

A Yes vote in a referendum accepted as legitimate by both sides would be followed by negotiations between the UK and Scottish governments on the terms of separation, including on how to divide the assets and liabilities of the UK state and on the future relationship between the two new countries.

The SNP plan is for an independent Scotland to re-join the EU. As the UK has already left the EU, an independent Scotland would need to apply to join under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union after first completing its separation from the rest of the UK. Re-entry would require accession negotiations and the consent of all 27 EU member states.

An independent Scotland would also have to decide which currency to use. In May 2018, the SNP Sustainable Growth Commission recommended that an independent Scotland should continue to use Sterling (without a formal monetary union) for a “possibly extended” transition period before introducing its own currency. 35 The Sustainable Growth Commission, The Monetary Policy and Financial Regulation Framework for an Independent Scotland, May 2018, static1.squarespace.com/static/5afc0bbbf79392ced8b73dbf/t/5b06e8a56d2a73f9e0305ad9/1527179438303/SGC+Part+C+Currency+Mon.  However, in 2019, SNP party conference voted to replace Sterling with a new Scottish currency “as soon as is practicable.”

Retaining the Pound would minimise disruption to trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK, but Scotland would be left without control of its own monetary policy, meaning it could not set interest rates or use quantitative easing to respond to economic shocks.

As a member of the EU, Scottish trade with the rest of the UK would be governed by the same rules as apply to trade between Great Britain and the EU. This would create new barriers to trade across the Anglo-Scottish border.

An independent Scotland would also face difficult choices about spending priorities. Analysis by the Scottish government published in August 2022 found that Scotland’s notional government deficit stood at 12% of GDP in 2021/22. 36 Scottish Government, Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS), 2021-22, August 2022, www.gov.scot/publications/government-expenditure-revenue-scotland-gers-2021-22/.  That meant that public spending per person in Scotland was around £4,300 higher than tax revenue per person.

Public figures
Nicola Sturgeon
Publisher
Institute for Government

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