With independence competing with Brexit as the predominant political issue in Scotland, the Scottish Government has called for a second independence referendum to take place by the end of 2020. Anthony Salamone argues that, even if the UK Government were to agree, this timetable would be ambitious and could limit the deliberative nature of the referendum.
Even without Brexit, Westminster elections in Scotland are these days somewhat unusual. Traditional electoral mainstays like health and education are devolved, so they are not officially at stake – though they feature in the debate nonetheless. In that sense, UK General Elections now serve to a degree as a proxy contest for the ongoing issues in Scottish politics.
We have therefore entered this election campaign with a much clearer understanding of the SNP’s preferred timeline for holding a second independence referendum. Ever since the Scottish Government abandoned its earlier request for a referendum after the 2017 General Election, pressure had been building on First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon within her party and across the wider independence movement to set out a revised plan. After months of postponement, Sturgeon announced in May 2019 her intention to hold an independence referendum by the end of 2020. At the SNP conference in October, she confirmed that she would request the necessary powers from the UK Government by the end of this year.
The preoccupying question is therefore how the UK Government will respond once the formal demand is made. While we will have to wait until after the election to find out, it is already clear that a prospective UK Government would not particularly welcome the idea of an independence referendum. If it were to facilitate one, this would undoubtedly be the product of fulfilling a democratic obligation rather than embracing constitutional reflection.
In the case of refusal (again), protracted political conflict could ensue. The Scottish Government is much less likely to withdraw its demand this time. Constitutional Relations Secretary Michael Russell recently reiterated that legal action might be pursued – yet that would surely prove an uphill struggle, given the reserved status of the constitution.
Beyond the question of the Section 30 order and the potential responses of both governments, it is worth considering the current preparations for a referendum and the implications of the 2020 timetable. The Scottish Government is already laying the groundwork, having introduced the Referendums (Scotland) Bill to Holyrood this spring. This legislation is ostensibly intended to provide the framework for any future referendum held by Scotland. However, its purpose is to underpin an independence referendum. The bill is currently progressing through the Scottish Parliament, but its eventual passage is virtually assured given the combined support of the SNP and the Scottish Greens, which both support independence.
Perhaps the most notable issue to arise in connection with the bill so far is the role of the Electoral Commission in the wording of referendum questions. At present, the bill specifically provides that a question which has previously been tested by the Commission would not need to be tested again. That would enable the 2014 referendum question – Should Scotland be an independent country? – to be reused without further assessment. The time saved could be important in allowing the SNP to keep the 2020 pledge on track.
More than time, the greater risk is that the Commission might recommend a different question or, more significantly, different answers. The entire Scottish independence debate architecture has been framed by a Yes (independence) / No (union) divide. If the recommendation were to move to a different answer style, such as Remain or Leave, that shift would disrupt existing narratives. On balance, such a change would negatively impact the pro-independence side more than the pro-union side. The Yes answer is more positive and it has been the basis for the independence movement since at least 2012. This issue will likely be resolved one way or another. Ultimately, the Scottish Government might well accept a different wording if the process evolves that way – such as Should Scotland become an independent state? – as long as it provides the same Yes/No answers as in 2014.
A referendum in 2020 would also result in a much shorter informal campaign. Last time, both the Yes and No campaigns launched in spring 2012, over two years before the actual vote. Certainly the question of independence is widely known in Scotland and has been continually debated since 2014. Nevertheless, the political circumstances have changed significantly – indeed, that is the SNP’s entire rationale for holding a new referendum. Sufficient time would therefore be necessary for both sides to set out their detailed positions and plans, and for those to be scrutinised and debated. For the independence side, new clarity would be needed on Scotland’s future relationships with the EU and the UK, given the impending changes from Brexit. The most important points would include a new timeline for EU accession and details on the border between Scotland and England.
For the union side, the central decision would be whether to advocate the status quo (insofar as one still exists) or to offer Scotland a new political settlement in the UK. Further powers could be devolved, such as immigration, the rest of welfare or the rest of tax – core aspects of the state which would significantly enhance Scotland’s autonomy. The UK could adopt a new constitutional system, including a written constitution with federalism, although this change would impact the whole of the UK.
If a referendum were to take place by December 2020, that would leave just about a year at most for preparations, campaigning, and debate. In reality, it could well be less than a year, since the Scottish Government would presumably want to avoid holding a vote in winter. This timetable could reduce the deliberative nature of the referendum for which the 2014 contest became widely known.
The structure of the two campaigns could also be quite different than last time. Grouping the three unionist parties in the Better Together campaign was widely seen to have damaged Scottish Labour in particular, so those parties might run their own operations. While the independence movement remains diverse, many Yes supporters joined the SNP after the referendum and the party could play an even larger role than it did in 2014.
The 2020 pledge is therefore ambitious, not just in terms of securing UK Government agreement but undertaking the referendum. Nicola Sturgeon has opted to hold the referendum before the next Scottish Parliament election in May 2021, while the parliament has its current pro-independence majority. However, if the UK Government did agree to a referendum but not on the 2020 timetable, it is difficult to imagine the Scottish Government refusing, particularly if the SNP became confident it could win the 2021 election.
Increasing political and moral pressure will likely be brought on the future UK Government to facilitate a new referendum. The existing precedent is that the Scottish Parliament should decide; a direct refusal on a referendum could simply build further support for independence. In Edinburgh, the growing sense is that the question is becoming when, not if, a second independence referendum will take place.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).