The economic impact of Brexit, cost of living crisis created by the rule of Tories, as well as different perceptions of economic, energy and foreign policies management divide Britain in the very place where once the Hadrian Wall did. Scots want to come back to the European Union, support green energy and more progressive policies – social, economic and cultural. What is the state of the union right now, and is there a future for independent Scotland?
Scotland is one of the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom. Originally, like England, it was an independent kingdom. In 1603, James VI, King of Scotland, also became King of England, resulting in a personal union between the two kingdoms: they shared the same head of state, but remained separate sovereign entities. A century later, the two kingdoms united to form a single country under the name of the Kingdom of Great Britain by virtue of the Act of Union of 1707. The Scots are British citizens in the same way as their English, Welsh, and Northern Irish compatriots. They elect representatives to the House of Commons of the British Parliament. The British government can therefore be composed of representatives of each of these four nations.
While the history of Scottish people differs greatly from this of Irish people, habing rebelled on numerous occasions against their exploitation and state racism towards Catholics, the independence movement standing for a free Scotland emerged as well. It was in the 1970s when the development of North Sea oil fields began. They were producing enough revenue to sustain a robust, independent economy, with a social democratic drift, just like in Norway. In other words, a state most Scots wanted to live in.
In a move aimed to somehow blunt the pro-independence sentiment, Westminster devolved many governing powers under the Scotland Act of 1998, to a newly created Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Since then, Scotland has enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, with its own government and parliament, but these cannot contravene the principles of British sovereignty.
Since 2003, the party ruling Scotland has been the SNP, Scottish National Party, founded in the 1930s. It has sought to use democratic means to achieve, what is called by Scots, ‘right to self-determination.’
Should Scotland be an independent country?
In 2014, while Britain was under the power of the Tories under David Cameron, Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, announced his intention to hold a referendum on Scottish independence on September 18, 2014. The plan was originally introduced in 2009, but in September 2010 the SNP withdrew its plan and ruled out a referendum before the 2011 elections. In May 2011, the party won an absolute majority, getting 69 of 129 seats. Then, the referendum was finally held in 2014.
The question on the voting ballot was simple: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ The results – 44,7% for yes, and 55,3% for no. However, there was a big white elephant in the room missing from the picture.
At this time there was no legal talk about the Brexit referendum. One could say: the Scots were not aware of stakes ahead of their vote. The Brexit referendum was at this time only a hypothetical option.
Yet, Brexit happened. And this has been the repeatedly used argument for the next referendum.
The SNP party, as well as other parties from Scotland, who are supporting independence, were in favor of remaining in the European Union. There was not any single voting region in Scotland that voted in favor of leaving the EU. The fact that left the whole debate whether Scots want or do not want to stay in the EU closed before even opening it. The landslide majority gave the decision makers a simple answer: we want to remain in the framework of a united Europe.
The whole campaign for Brexit was a hoax. Millions of pounds supposed to be transferred to the NHS, thanks to leaving the EU, somehow disappeared. The Northern Ireland border issue has been in the meantime light up, with now so-called Irish protocol still to be implemented, to resolve the question of the Irish Sea border. However, no one, Johnson, Truss or Sunak had an answer for that, leaving the future of Northern Ireland in peril, with Sinn Fein being on the historical rise since the referendum. Right now, the party is the most popular party in both Irish states. The party that once supported the IRA, and still argues very bravely for the unification of the green island.
Seeing the results of Brexit such as inflation, lack of the workforce in NHS, lack of medicines, rising bureaucracy – UK must implement its own closed market rules – right now Scots are more than sure that they want to fight for the independence once more.
The Scottish independence push has been ignited even more after the U.K. Supreme Court ruling that prevented the holding of a new independence referendum.
In its ruling on November 23rd, the U.K.’ Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish parliament does not have the power to demand that a new referendum on Scottish independence be held without first an agreement with London and thus approval from the U.K. parliament and government.
The Scottish premier’s request included activating the clause in Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, which allows for the temporary cession of sovereignty from the British to the Scottish parliament, to allow Scotland to promote the independence referendum, as it did in 2014, but Westminster refused, and the matter ended up in the Supreme Court.
The English Court’s presiding judge, Lord Reed, commenting on the ruling, explained that the laws founding the Scottish Parliament do not give the assembly the power to legislate on matters of a constitutional nature, such as would be that relating to unity between Scotland and England.
Let us say it again: the reason for a new referendum a few years later stems primarily from Brexit. With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, independence leaders say, there are many Scots who would like to break away from London and return to the EU. That is why Premier Nicola Sturgeon announced at a press conference in November 2022 that instead of a failed referendum, there will a be a 2024 UK parliamentary election… and its results will tell precisely what are the citizens’ wishes.
We must and will find another democratic and legal means for Scots to express their will” – she said. meaning the fight for the next referendum through demonstrations, advocacy and gathering support.
The new fights ahead
The latest development in the politics around Scottish independence involves LGBT+ rights and strikes. First story involves a direct block by Rishi Sunak of the legislation passed by the Scottish parliament, which was meant to make it easier for transgender people to self-identify.
He did that in January using a constitutional order under the Scotland Act for the first time in history, which makes it possible for Westminster to block any legislation passed by its Scottish counterpart. It is a complete ‘nuclear option’ in the relations between two parliaments. Something that was meant for much more grave disagreements than this. The whole move was signed by the secretary of state for Scotland, Alister Jack. He declared that he would use provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 to halt the gender recognition bill after a review by UK government lawyers.
The whole story has brought – which is no shock at all – accusations of scapegoating the transgender community by Rishi Sunak, to turn the public’s eyes from the cost-of-living crisis. Nancy Kelley, the chief executive of Stonewall, a leading transgender rights organization, having a lot of chapters all around the world, accused Sunak of using trans people’ lives as “a political football.”
Nicola Sturgeon has described Sunak’ move as an offensive against the Scottish parliament. In a tweet posted in response to Alister Jack’s Section 35 announcement, the first minister said: “This is a full-frontal attack on our democratically elected Scottish parliament and its ability to make its own decisions on devolved matters.” Right now the matter is still being discussed by the public, leaving the relations shrinking as never.
Strikes, however, are much more popular in Wales and England. While some schools and sectors strike as well in Scotland, it’s not (yet?) the wave of strike of the same posture as in the south. SNP tries to remain on its social liberal stance, if not fully satisfied, at least at the table of negotiations, not like Westminster. Just like it happened with the nurses, who have held their strikes thanks to successful communication with Holyrood.
Sometimes the SNP’s effort for democratic and workers rights overshadows the one of Labour. For example, the RMT, the union that started the whole strike wave at the end of the spring last year, is often accompanied by the Scottish politicians.
What’s more, during last demonstration against the anti-strike bill in front of the Downing Street Mike Lynch said that: “There are some people missing tonight. You get this every time you hear me. We have Jeremy [Corbyn], he is with us, we have SNP MPs, we have Caroline Lucas from the Green party. But there is a big question – where is the Labour frontbench tonight?”
However, support for trade unions in their effort to block the anti-strike bill is not coming elsewhere. Teachers striking in Scotland are in deadlock. Holyrood’s education ministry continues to insist demands for a 10% pay rise are unaffordable. This leaves schools in some parts of Scotland disrupted since the management over education is in the hands of the very same SNP that has been standing hand in hand with RMT in front of Downing Street.
The teachers unions plan on keeping the pressure by industrial actions taking place beginning from the end of February. This may change as there might be a new offer in negotiations, says BBC. But looking backwards at the tradition of industrial deadlock over most of the disputes in Great Britain, this as well might not happen soon. Nevertheless, we see sharp differences between the treatment of working people in Scotland, trying to maintain its welfare state course in the framework set by parliamentary division, and in England and Wales, which are right now undergoing an open battle between undemocratic government and trade unions.
However, the hottest topic in Scotland now is the new Prime Minister. Not having politically survived until the new elections or a new referendum, Nicola Sturgeon said that: “Since the very first moment in the job, I have believed that part of serving well would be to know, almost instinctively, when the time is right to make way for someone else. (..) And when that time comes, to have the courage to do so, even if many across the country, and in my party, might feel it too soon. (..) In my head and in my heart I know that time is now. That it is right for me, for my party and for the country”.
She also stated that it is now because of the latest pressure from Westminster and the striking movement. In this she resembles the latest, shocking decision of Jacinda Ardern. She added that she will remain in the position till her successor is elected. Who might be this person, we still don’t know. The carousel of names has only started.
As Gavin Rae, a former Labour activist tells us:
“Nicola Sturgeon rose to power through the growth in the independence movement and she led the SNP to five successive Scottish and UK General election victories. However, after the referendum, she increasingly distanced herself from the independence movement and in fact did not try to build a movement for independence. This meant that all focus of the independence movement went through the SNP, which Sturgeon increasingly ran in a non-democratic and authoritarian manner.
Sturgeon has often been viewed in England as a progressive political leader, although this opinion is not widely shared amongst the Scottish left. She consistently sided with large global business and supported such things as continuing with Sterling (the British currency) after independence; supporting NATO, etc.. Her government introduced a number of austerity measures, coming into conflict with teachers and other public sector workers”.
In addition, as Rae points out,
“She has left at a time when the UK Supreme Court has ruled out a new referendum and the UK parliament has blocked Scotland’s gender recognition reforms, stating that they go against devolution rules. Sturgeon is therefore leaving power at a point where the independence movement has suffered severe defeats”.
All of this leaves the question of Scottish independence rising, then going away. Tory politicians declare that there will not be any referendum in the next 20 years, because “it’s one for one generation”, as they put it. However, the new fights just make the whole cauldron much more boiling than it used to be more than half a year ago.
Then, what is the future of the SNP without Nicola Sturgeon, we asked Gavin.
“The SNP has campaigned almost as a single issue (independence) party in recent years. As independence now seems a distant prospect, the SNP will face severe problems. It still remains the largest party in Scotland and Labour has not managed to sufficiently rebuild its position in Scotland and the Tories remain very unpopular. We will see whether the resignation of Sturgeon and the failures of the independence movement will significantly damage the SNP’s support or not. People have grown weary of the SNP, which has been in power in Scotland for over 15 years. With economic circumstances worsening it becomes harder for the SNP to simply blame the UK government for the country’s difficulties. Sturgeon has dominated Scottish politics so completely recently that her resignation creates a severe crisis at the heart of the Scottish government and SNP.
There does not seem to be an obvious successor to Sturgeon and the party membership seems split on the strategy for independence, issues around the gender recognition reforms, as well as on economic policy”
– he replied.
Back in October 2020, an Ipsos Mori poll for STV News showed 58% of Scots in support of independence and that, if there were an economic case for Scotland becoming independent, 75% of Scots say they would support it. What will happen when the Tories eventually lose power? It is yet to be seen.