During the 2016 campaign for the Referendum on the European Union (EU) various commentators and politicians described the decision that was about to be taken as more important than a General Election. There were plenty of allusions to how the referendum result would affect the UK for “generations to come” and how it was a once in a lifetime chance to change the UK.
As far as political campaigns go, the EU Referendum campaign was exceptionally exciting for a number of reasons. One of those reasons was the very high stakes involved. As commentators and politicians were also fond of reminding the public, the result could permanently alter the UK’s relationship with the EU and the rest of the world. That the referendum involved something called “real change” and something else called “great risks” certainly brought the debate alive for both those to whom politics was and was not a part of everyday life.
The unpredictability of the result was also a source of excitement, as neither side seemed to have a decisive edge in the polls over the other at any point, despite the Remain camp persistently having a slim lead.
There was also the dramatic involvement of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in the Leave campaign, two easily recognisable Conservative MPs whose decision to campaign against for Leave, opposing the then-Prime Minister, David Cameron, enlivened the campaign.
The campaign on the UK’s membership of the EU, and its result, was without doubt a turning point in the political history of the UK. The excitement of the whole process was matched by its far-reaching consequences, which were, indeed, much more obvious and immediate than those of a General Election.
In Scotland, however, the last two or three years of political life have been defined by two referenda: the 2016 EU referendum as well as the 2014 Referendum on Scottish Independence. The former was described as more important than a General Election for the UK, but this comparison does not do justice to the 2014 referendum in terms of what it meant for Scotland.
The EU Referendum result no doubt changes many things about the UK, but the UK itself would remain the same insofar as it would remain a contiguous territorial entity. Leave or Remain, the UK would still be the union of four nations as before; it would still have the monarchy; the pound would still be the national currency.
On the other hand, with two years to reflect on the Scottish Referendum it is still difficult to explain the complete picture of what, in Scottish voters’ minds, was in contention in September 2014. More than a change of government, more than a change of the country’s overall direction, more than a change in Scotland’s relationship with the world, the Scottish Referendum of 2014 dealt with what Scottish people wanted them, their future, and their country to be.
The excitement of that referendum and the importance of what was decided was, in Scotland at least, far more passionate and engaging than the EU referendum. Indeed, such was the extent to which Independence was a more provocative issue, the UK’s membership of the EU featured in the Scottish Referendum as just one of many areas of disagreement between the Yes and No campaigns.
The debate over whether an Independent Scotland could remain a member of the EU is credited by some commentators with causing some Scottish voters, business-owners in particular, to think twice about voting for Independence. After Scotland voted to remain in the UK, it is clear that one of the Remain camp’s chief strengths was the argument that figures in the EU warned that an Independent Scotland would have to re-apply for membership of the EU, and that Scotland would have to use the Euro if it did so- neither of which prospects proved appealing to Scottish voters.
The defeat of the Scottish Nationalist was a redefining moment, or re-affirming moment, for Scotland as well as the UK. Even defeated Nationalist leaders suggested that the debate had been resolved for at least a political generation, as they promised to respect and abide by the verdict of the Scottish people.
Given that membership of the EU was so attractive to Scottish voters during the 2014 Referendum, it can hardly be surprising that the 2016 EU Referendum produced a rather one-sided argument in Scotland. Every party with seats in Holyrood backed Remain, whereas in other parts of the UK Conservative and Labour MPs urged voters to Leave.
In the end, Scotland voted more than 60% to remain part of the EU.
Of course, this resounding Scottish endorsement of the status quo regarding the EU was outweighed by the support Leave had in England and Wales, resulting in a Leave vote overall. In the aftermath of the result, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon travelled to the EU, communicating Scotland’s preference for Remain to EU leaders in the hope that there might be a possibility of Scotland remaining a member of the EU while the rest of the UK left.
Adopting the slogan “Remain means Remain”, the SNP cast themselves as the only party willing to fight for Scotland to retain as many aspects of EU membership as is possible so that Scotland’s decision to Remain would be honoured.
Sturgeon has in recent months placed emphasis on Scotland and the UK remaining a member of the single market, on which many Scottish businesses depend.
The SNP has also repeatedly criticised what they perceive as a lack of a plan from the government in relation to its negotiation aims after it triggers Article 50. Central to this criticism was the need for clarity over the question of the single market, an issue which Theresa May’s speech on 17th January 2017 cleared up by disregarding membership of the single market as the UK’s negotiating aim.
May’s decision to accept that single market membership is not desirable (or perhaps feasible, given what some EU negotiators and leaders have said) has accidentally played into the “Tory Hard Brexit” narrative of the SNP, and allowed the SNP to return to one of the defining issues of the 2014 referendum.
May cannot be blamed for this, seen as single market membership had been ruled out in all but name by EU negotiators prior to her speech. But Sturgeon has deliberately interpreted the end of single market access in terms of Scottish Independence.
Withdrawal from the single market, she told the BBC hours after May’s speech, would be extremely likely to bring about a second independence referendum. In saying this, Sturgeon has not of course ruled a second referendum in or out, but she has made sure that it is firmly on the table for Scotland.
This is not the time to revisit the argument about whether Scotland should be independent or not: no referendum has been called, and shall probably not be called for a number of years. We can have the discussion about whether Scotland should leave the UK when and if this referendum takes place. The debate in Scotland at the present time is merely a speculative one as to whether Sturgeon is right to revisit the independence debate at all.
The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum was the culmination of a years-long debate about Scotland’s national direction. A referendum on independence could only take place if Westminster passed legislation to allow Holyrood to call one; and no Scottish government could win a vote on whether to call a referendum without a majority in Holyrood.
After the first Scottish Parliamentary Election in 1999, the SNP had to wait until 2011 to win their first majority in Holyrood. This finally gave them a clear mandate not for independence, but to hold a referendum on independence. Working with Westminster, the SNP arranged the referendum for September 2014.
The independence debate had been growing in momentum for fifteen years before it was finally resolved. Not only this, the constitutional issues which it raised, as well as the hot tempers and soul-searching which it engendered in a great number of Scottish people, all contributed to make the 2014 referendum an exhausting, if exciting, experience for Scottish society.
The relative quiet which descended over Scottish politics thereafter was broadly welcomed by a public which had gone through nearly an entire year of relentless debates about finance, identity and government.
Sturgeon’s assertion that withdrawal from the single market merits a return to these debates therefore deserves some justification, as it is difficult to see how there could be substantial appetite in the Scottish public for a resumption of the independence debate, particularly only two years after the result was delivered.
Not only would the complicated arguments about economics and identity be unwelcome, but Sturgeon and the SNP might bring themselves into disrepute for “disrespecting” or “disregarding” the 2014 result which at the time they promised to abide by. Trust in politicians is, like elsewhere in the UK, unflatteringly impoverished in Scotland, and the SNP seemingly sidelining the clear and decisive result from 2014 would likely drag the name of politics further down.
Moreover, Sturgeon needs to answer several very serious questions about her assertion that the end of single market access would require a second independence referendum.
If we examine the precise meaning of her words, Sturgeon appears to be saying that independence for Scotland would be preferable to remaining in the UK without single market access. Now, Sturgeon has previously criticised the Conservative UK government for a lack of clarity on the single market. But it appears that Sturgeon, despite making this assertion, can say nothing about whether an Independent Scotland would be able to get a better deal from the EU than the UK government.
Nobody can say whether an Independent Scotland seeking membership of the EU would be able to negotiate a deal better than the Conservative government. Nor can Sturgeon remove the even more concerning consensus established during the 2014 referendum campaign, that an Independent Scotland would by no means be able to simply walk back into the EU.
Before the issue of revisiting the independence question can gain traction, Sturgeon needs to address this point.
First and foremost, however, it is not clear that the Scottish public are attached so deeply to the single market that they would consider independence if it were taken away. (Indeed, some commentators claim that Scottish people might be even more inclined towards unionism now that the UK has left the EU.) Though there will probably be remorse at leaving the single market and some resentment at Westminster for triggering Article 50, the Scottish people, at first glance, do not seem nearly so invigorated over the single market as they were about remaining in or leaving the UK.
But Sturgeon also has to answer the question of what kind of independence it is she will achieve. As the first to criticise the Conservatives for not being clear over Brexit, Sturgeon must offer the Scottish public a realistic direction for Scotland should it go independent.
The issues of wealth and well-being are also never far away, and before she calls second independence referendum Sturgeon must convince ordinary voters that independence would make Scotland more prosperous and more stable than remaining in the UK after it has withdrawn from the single market.
Having outlined the challenges that Sturgeon faces in relation to her claim on the 17th of January 2017, one final question remains to be asked. As we have established, it is not necessary or relevant to discuss here whether Scotland should be an independent country.
What we can ask in 2017, however, is a question about Sturgeon’s judgement.
As with all members of the SNP, Sturgeon’s ultimate political ambition is to see Scotland become an independent country. This is the purpose of the SNP. It is why people join the SNP. It is, for many Scottish people, the reason they vote for the SNP.
Many contemporary SNP politicians still believe that Scotland will be independent within their lifetime. The fact that Scotland voted to Remain but will be leaving the EU provides the SNP a convenient pretext to discuss the issue of independence, but Sturgeon’s remarks suggest that she is seriously contemplating the idea that a second referendum could take place within ten years of the 2014 referendum.
The question we need to ask in relation to this is whether or not Sturgeon is making a mistake in using the issue of Brexit and the single market to make a tentative and no doubt sincere bid for another referendum on Scottish Independence.
Were she to force the issue and succeed in bringing a second referendum in perhaps 2020, Sturgeon could well lose that referendum as well. Given that in 2014 the Yes camp lost by 10%, and that Scottish opinion is allegedly turning slightly towards the safety of the union after Brexit, it seems in early 2017 that winning an Independence Referendum any time soon would be a huge mountain for the SNP to climb.
According to some commentators a second defeat for independence would not only put the issue to rest for a generation, as the SNP said in 2014, but possibly for a century. This would be a blow from which it would be very difficult for the Nationalist cause to recover.
With the risks for Nationalism as high as this, it is worth Sturgeon’s time to pause and consider whether the cause of an Independent Scotland would be advanced or set back by a decision to announce a second referendum. Trying to exploit Brexit for this end could prove counterproductive in the longer run.
While she and the SNP, and the Scottish people, are justified in being aggrieved at leaving the EU against their wishes, one referendum result should not be confused with another.