CInstitutional issues are rarely not at the center of things in Scotland and now, after a two-year period in which the government promised to focus on the pandemic, the question of independence is nearing the top of the agenda once again: Nicola Sturgeon has announced that her government plans to hold a second independence referendum in October 2023. There are those who regard this as a propitious moment for the first minister to have fired the starting gun; and then there are those who insist it is nothing short of reckless.
For the “terrible timing” contingent, the argument goes like this. After 15 years in power, the Scottish National party is exhausted and bereft of vision. Its self-image as a progressive, outward-looking party has been tarnished by its opacity and controlling tendencies. Moreover, a central plank of Sturgeon’s strategy – that the best way to win over soft no voters is by demonstrating competent devolved government – has been upended by a series of failures: on education, drug deaths and, most recently, delayed and over budget ferries. The electorate, already crisis- and plebiscite-weary, is about to be hit by spiraling energy and food prices. The last thing it needs is more upheaval.
Yet for those who support an IndyRef2 in October 2023, as the constitution secretary, Angus Robertson, has pledged, the arguments in favor are equally obvious. Again and again, the Tories running the UK government have proved themselves morally bankrupt. On the very day that Sturgeon published the first installment of the SNP’s new prospectus for independence – a series of papers on issues such as currency and defense – they were trying their hand at people-trafficking and reneging on the Northern Irish protocol.
That’s before we even come to the cost of living crisis. What greater motivation is there for the people of Scotland, who backed neither Johnson nor Brexit, to vote yes this time round than the thought that Rishi Sunak’s answer to increased hardship might be yet another round of austerity? Especially given that earlier rounds caused so much devastation to the country’s most deprived communities?
That so much has changed since the last independence referendum adds weight to both perspectives. On the one hand, it is possible, as Sturgeon suggested, that the 2014 independence referendum would have been won if Scots had known they were about to be dragged out of the EU. Brexit has impacted the country negatively, affecting its exports and damaging the hospitality industry, which was reliant on seasonal EU workers.
On the other, Brexit has underscored the difficulty of disentangling countries from long-established unions. And it has added new challenges. If the SNP’s vision of independence within the EU prevails, a hard border will almost certainly be required between Scotland and England.
The pandemic, too, can be used to back up arguments on both sides. Scotland benefited from Treasury money spent on furlough and the self-employed support scheme. But what radical decisions might the SNP have taken with greater borrowing powers and the freedom to go its own way? It seems unlikely that any leader of an independent Scotland would have introduced an energy bill discount that gave the greatest rewards to those with second or third homes.
Successive crises mean this time round the yes campaign will be less idealistic and more rooted in cold realities. Long gone is the notion of a “land of milk and honey”; now the SNP concedes there would be a period of economic upheaval in pursuit of a better long-term future. This week, Sturgeon agreed that if Scotland were in the EU’s single market – and the rest of the UK outside it – there would be “customs and regulatory issues” on trade. But she refused to use the words “border” or “checks”.
She also underplayed perhaps the greatest obstacle to IndyRef 2: what happens if Boris Johnson continues to refuse to grant a Section 30 – the only mechanism by which it can legally be held? Scots know, from watching events in Catalonia, the perils of wildcat referendums. We also know that Johnson is unlikely to be shamed into changing his position by having his respect for him for democracy questioned. Sturgeon’s hint that she has an alternative approach up her sleeve de ella is less convincing when you remember her party has failed to present its much-vaunted IndyRef2 bill to parliament.
At the same time, Scottish Labor leader Anas Sarwar’s insistence that the SNP should be focusing its energies on the cost of living crisis seems misplaced. Indeed, it could serve to bolster the prime minister’s position rather than his own.
One of the best examples of the Scottish government using its existing levers to make a difference has been the introduction of the child payment – this is currently £20 a week for every child under six in low-income families (but is to be extended to children under 16 by the end of the year). It has been lauded by anti-poverty organizations including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. However, with so many powers still reserved, the SNP can only ever mitigate against hardship. It cannot formulate a comprehensive policy to tackle the roots of it.
This is, in the end, the crux of the matter and the reason that many hopeful future facilities from the party’s independence prospectus will confront the challenges of separation head-on, while demonstrating what independence could deliver. Scotland is a nation with deep-seated problems the UK government has no interest in understanding and no will to address. The SNP may have its flaws, but the status quo is unsustainable.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism