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The Independence Question in 2020

Published: 24 August 2020

In a chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics, Coree Brown Swan of the Centre on Constitutional Change explores the question of Scottish independence, asking how independence in 2020 might vary from previous iterations. 

In September 2014, voters were asked ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, a question which on the surface appeared clear-cut. During the campaign, however, it became apparent that the meaning of independence, whether advanced by the SNP or the broader Yes campaign, was both complex and contested. This was not unique to 2014; throughout the party’s history, it had advanced forms of independence which reflect dynamics internal and external to the party.

Independence developed in three phases. The first phase saw a form of ambiguously labelled self-government situated within the Empire. At its founding, the SNP sought self-government, in the form of the restoration

The second phase, from the 1960s to the 1980s, saw a move to more explicit definition of independence as the party stressed national sovereignty, rejecting participation in the then-European Community. It campaigned against the UK’s accession, perceiving EC membership as having negative economic consequences for Scotland, curtailing Scotland’s ties with Commonwealth countries, and moving power even further away from Scotland.

The third vision of independence, which emerged in the 1980s, retains the structure of independent statehood but increasingly acknowledged and embraces interdependences and cooperation at the international level. Most notable during this period was the party’s shift on the issue of European membership, from opposition to participation to ‘Independence in Europe’. Further developed since it was first articulated in 1988, it formed the foundation of the party’s proposals in 2014.

In the 2014 referendum campaign,the SNP argued that independence entailed both an international legal personality but also continued cooperation, both within the British Isles and with the European Union. In a series of speeches Alex Salmond promised to maintain the social, monarchical, defence and currency unions and continue Scotland’s participation in the European Union, dissolving only the political union. Although opponents derided this as a form of ‘independence-lite’, the party argued that this was a realistic reflection of the nature of independence and interdependence in the 21st century. It argues that integration, even far-reaching, is not incompatible with independence, viewing sovereignty as something to be gained but then shared.

In the six years since the independence referendum, much has changed. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union is the more obvious one. Scotland’s 62 per cent Remain vote prompted Nicola Sturgeon to hold another referendum. Recent polling suggests that a future vote, if held today, would be a close-run thing. However, the move towards another referendum has been put on hold while Scotland, and indeed the world, seeks to contain the Covid19 pandemic. The UK Government has also made it clear that it would not give the necessary permission.

How might independence in 2021 or later differ from the proposals put forth in 2014? Three challenges face the SNP as they prepare for another vote. The first is the nature of the party and its internal dynamics. The party’s explosion in membership following the 2014 referendum has bolstered the party at the polls and fuelled its electoral success, but the traditional broad tent approach and notorious party discipline may be under strain. These tensions may be exacerbated in the event that the UK Government does not accept the SNP’s request to hold another referendum, with some within the party arguing that such consent is not necessary

The second deals with the impact of Brexit, which serves as both a boon and a bane for the SNP, on one hand, making the case for independence more compelling, on the other, requiring significant revision of the 2014 prospectus which was predicated on both the UK and an independent Scotland remaining members. Would Scotland seek to rejoin the EU or negotiate a closer relationship and what barriers would this create to economic cooperation between Scotland and the rUK?

Closely linked with this are the economic realities of this era, with the collapse in oil prices, the impact of Brexit on the economy, and the potential for a global recession as a result of pandemic. Can the SNP continue to paint a rosy scene of the economic prospects of Scotland? But also conversely, can the UK continue to speak of the economic success of the British state?

Following the Holyrood elections in May 2021, the SNP, its opponents, and Scottish voters are likely to be faced with the independence question once more. However, the question may be markedly different given both internal and external dynamics.

'The Independence Questions' was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press. 

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash




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