With Brexit looming, there have been calls for the Scottish National Party to spell out its position on a second vote on independence. In the first vote, in September 2014, Scotland voted 55-45 against, in a referendum described by then First Minister Alex Salmond as “a once in a generation opportunity”.
However, in its manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections of May 2016, the SNP argued that “Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will” would justify a second vote. In June 2016, Scotland voted by 62% to 38% in favour of Remain and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon concluded that indyref2 “must be on the table”.
In March 2017, the day before Article 50 was triggered, Sturgeon formally requested the consent of Westminster for another referendum. Her proposal was for the vote to take place either in autumn 2018 or spring 2019, before Brexit. But Prime Minister Theresa May declined to grant consent, arguing that “now is not the time”.
The Scottish Government remains of the view that Scotland should be given a choice between Brexit and independence, but it has not committed to a timetable. The First Minister is due to make a statement on the issue in late 2018, once the terms of Brexit are clearer.
Sturgeon is likely to want to hold a vote before the next Scottish Parliament election in 2021, perhaps in autumn 2020, before the end of the planned Brexit transition period.
Meanwhile, on 7 October 2018, Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that the SNP would vote in favour of a second EU referendum. However, the SNP is likely to call for a ‘double lock’, as it did in 2016, meaning Brexit would require a majority not only across the UK as a whole, but also in each nation of the UK. Alternatively, if Brexit were to go ahead despite a second Scottish vote for Remain, then the SNP will likely argue that Scotland should have the chance to vote again on independence or else that Brexit should incorporate a special deal for Scotland.
Under the Scotland Act 1998, the Scottish Parliament is not allowed to pass legislation relating to matters “reserved” to Westminster, including “the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England”. This is widely interpreted to mean that any referendum relating to Scottish independence would require Westminster approval. However, the matter has never been tested in court, so there remains some uncertainty about whether Holyrood could hold an advisory referendum without consent.
In 2012, the UK and Scottish Governments signed the Edinburgh Agreement, which temporarily empowered the Scottish Parliament to hold the first independence referendum. This power was transferred using a so-called “Section 30 order”, which “put beyond doubt” the legality of that referendum. The Scottish Government did not explicitly concede that a referendum could never be held without Westminster authorisation. But its preference is to proceed with agreement, since any unauthorised referendum could be blocked in the Supreme Court or simply boycotted by unionist parties.
The only other pro-independence party in the Scottish Parliament is the Scottish Greens. Together with the SNP, these two parties hold 68 seats, a narrow majority for independence in the 129-seat legislature. The leaders of the Scottish Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats have all reiterated their opposition to a second independence referendum since September 2018.
At Westminster, in June 2018, Theresa May reiterated that “now is not the time” for another referendum. Jeremy Corbyn, however, stated that he would “not [rule] out” giving consent to another independence referendum if he becomes Prime Minister.
By a small margin, the Scottish public appears to oppose holding a second indyref, as well as independence itself. A Survation poll in July 2018 found that 49% of Scots thought Nicola Sturgeon should not call an independence referendum at all. 42% thought she should, but nearly half of this group felt that autumn 2018 was too soon.
Immediately after the EU referendum, the polls suggested a swing towards support for independence, should a second referendum occur. However, this was not sustained, and most polls since 2016 indicate that a narrow but clear majority would vote No to independence. There is some, fairly weak, evidence that Brexit will strengthen support for independence. A September 2018 survey by Deltapoll revealed a 47%-43% lead for No (discounting ‘don’t knows’). When asked how they would vote if the UK left the EU as planned, the result was reversed, with the same margin.
The Scottish Government would be expected to propose the same franchise as in 2014, when UK, EU and Commonwealth citizens resident in Scotland were able to vote. The voting age was also set at 16 for the first time. People born in Scotland, but resident elsewhere, were not eligible to vote.
There are currently 235,000 EU citizens living in Scotland. The Scottish government is planning to legislate to protect their right to vote in the Scottish Parliament and local elections, even if EU citizens elsewhere in the UK lose this right. The same would be expected to apply in a future independence vote.
A Yes vote would be followed by negotiations between the UK and Scottish Governments on the terms of independence, including how to divide the assets and liabilities of the UK state and on the future relationship between the two new countries.
One big question for Scotland would be whether to apply to rejoin the European Union, assuming the UK had left by this point. The Scottish Government has consistently argued that Scotland should – at the least – remain within the European Single Market and Customs Union. However, if Scotland were allowed back into the EU economic zone but England were outside, then new customs controls and product checks might be required on goods crossing the Anglo-Scottish Border, just as a hard Brexit could create new barriers between the two parts of Ireland.
This could be economically costly for business, particularly in Scotland, since an estimated 61% of Scottish exports (excluding oil and gas) are to the rest of the UK (2016 figures). An independent Scotland would also have to decide which currency to use. In May 2018, the SNP Sustainable Growth Commission concluded that an independent Scotland should continue to use the pound (though without a formal monetary union) for a “possibly extended” transition period, before introducing its own currency.
Public spending per capita (including a share of non-identifiable spending, e.g. on defence) was 13% higher in Scotland than in the rest of the UK in 2016/17, while estimated tax revenue per capita was around 4% lower than the UK average, according to the ONS. Scottish tax revenue per head was higher than England until 2013/14, largely as a result of high revenues from offshore oil and gas, 90% of which lies in Scottish waters.
The decline in the oil price since 2014 has left Scotland facing a nominal fiscal deficit of nearly £15bn, or 9.5% of its GDP. If all else remained equal, and assuming a proportionate split of UK pension and debt liabilities, then an independent Scotland would have to raise taxes or cut public spending.
An independent Scotland would nonetheless be a wealthy country: it currently has a higher per capita economic output than all regions of the UK except London and the South East.