Scotland turns up heat in bid for independence from UK

Second referendum after 2014 defeat hinges on Supreme Court hearing

Scots take part in a march for independence in Glasgow in May. EPA
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As the ruling British Conservative Party spends the summer deciding who should become the next prime minister, one region is preparing the ground for an even bigger choice: should Scotland be part of the country at all.

The Scottish National Party has used the political turmoil in London to push forward its attempt to split from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A step in setting that date with destiny looms on Tuesday when the Edinburgh government must file its case for a new independence referendum.

It is part of a reborn campaign helped by national focus on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s mishaps, from partygate fines to ill-judged political appointments.

Despite a previous failed bid in 2014, where 55 per cent of Scots narrowly voted in favour of staying in the UK, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has kept her election pledge to again lobby for a referendum.

“Nicola Sturgeon has turned up the volume. She had to,” Prof Matt Qvortrup, author of the coming book I Want to Break Free: A Guide to Making a New Country, and professor of political science at Coventry University, told The National.

“She is under pressure from her hinterland to push for a referendum and Boris has been a good recruitment sergeant for independence.”

Mr Johnson has steadily rejected Ms Sturgeon’s referendum request because the previous vote had been described as a “once in a generation opportunity” by pro-independence figures, and there was “no case” for it to be revisited.

Ms Sturgeon, who in 2019 won 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the UK Parliament, has defied the national government to press on with plans to hold a referendum on October 19, 2023.

She has published a draft independence referendum bill, which she has referred to the Supreme Court to determine whether it can be passed without UK government agreement.

A hearing will be held in October and Tuesday's submission of the argument for a poll organised and authorised in Edinburgh not London, as was the case in 2014, is the first tangible test.

As the Tory leadership contest steps up after Mr Johnson’s resignation, with the final two candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss battling it out for the premiership, the issue of independence has arisen in debates but both have ruled out agreeing to a second referendum.

Ms Truss stirred a backlash in Scotland when she called Ms Sturgeon an “attention seeker”.

She made the extravagant claim that the “entire resources of the Scottish government are being used to run essentially an independence campaign, and I think that is grossly irresponsible”.

One Scottish nationalist politician, James Dornan, said the comments demonstrated that the Conservative leadership switch would not represent a change from the hostility of Mr Johnson.

“Not much change from the incumbent deceiver then,” Mr Dornan told local newspapers.

Observers expect the battle lines to alter in ways that could be more challenging for the nationalists.

“The next Tory leader is unlikely to be as toxic as Boris,” Prof Qvortrup told The National. “Nicola Sturgeon is under pressure from her hinterland to push for a referendum.

“But she is in a bind as she knows it will be hard to win a referendum.

“The Tories are unlikely to grant another referendum, so turning up the volume is a good way to appear to heed the supporters' call.”

Prof Qvortrup's prediction could pitch Ms Truss, who grew up in the Scottish town of Paisley, into a full-scale electoral battle in Scotland.

She has said “some Scots love her” but she is a “child of the Union”, and will be strengthening the loyalist case if elected by making “people’s lives better” across the UK.

Scottish MP Andrew Bowie believes Mr Sunak is the only candidate capable of standing up to Ms Sturgeon.

“Forged and proven in a crisis, only Rishi has the mettle to stand up to Nicola Sturgeon,” Mr Bowie wrote in The Times.

“He was the chancellor who ensured the furlough scheme, which saved 700,000 Scottish jobs, applied to the whole UK.

“He was the chancellor who ensured that businesses across the whole United Kingdom would benefit from the bounce-back loans that kept many afloat through the most difficult times.

“He cares just as passionately about jobs and livelihoods in Scotland as he does about jobs and livelihoods in England.

“Wrapping ourselves in the Union Jack and humming Land of Hope and Glory will not keep the United Kingdom whole. We will do that by our actions, and Rishi’s actions speak louder than his words.”

But SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford believes Mr Johnson’s actions have driven support for Scottish independence to “new heights”.

“His Tory Brexit slashed £31 billion from the economy, the biggest fall in living standards since the 1970s,” Mr Blackford told the Hpuse of Commons.

“People’s pay in real terms falling at the fastest rate on record, with the worst economic growth forecast in the G20 outside of Russia and the highest inflation in 40 years.

“Personally, I would like to thank the prime minister in his capacity as minister of the union for driving support for independence to new heights.

“Westminster is holding Scotland back. The economy is failing and this prime minister has driven us to the brink of recession.

“Isn’t it the case that the prime minister’s legacy of catastrophic mismanagement has paved the way for the end of the union?”

As Mr Johnson bowed out, he used his final Prime Minister’s Question Time to dismiss the independence campaign.

“When Mr Blackford retires to his croft I hope he will reflect on his long-running campaign to break up the greatest country in the world and the pointlessness of what he is trying to do, and think instead about the priorities of the people of Scotland,” he said.

Despite the court reprieve and raised hopes, the SNP’s campaign has not been plain sailing and recent polls have also not been promising a baked-in majority for the exercise.

Think tank the Institute for Government says public opinion remains evenly divided.

“After the start of the coronavirus pandemic, support for independence rose further, at a time when the Scottish government was perceived to have done a better job than the UK government in responding to Covid,” the institute said.

“Most polls in 2020 and early 2021 showed a clear majority in favour of a Yes vote,” it said.

“However, as the 2021 Scottish election approached the polls narrowed again. In 10 polls conducted in the two weeks before the election, Yes was only ahead in one.

“Most polls conducted since then have similarly found a narrow lead for No.”

If any future referendum resulted in independence, the SNP plans to see Scotland rejoin the EU and create its own currency.

It would be a long process that would see “negotiations between the UK and Scottish governments on the terms of separation, including on how to divide the assets and liabilities of the UK state and on the future relationship between the two new countries”, the think tank said.

“As the UK has already left the EU, an independent Scotland would need to apply to join under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union after first completing its separation from the rest of the UK.

“Re-entry would require accession negotiations and the consent of all 27 EU member states.

“In May 2018, the SNP Sustainable Growth Commission recommended that an independent Scotland should continue to use sterling [without a formal monetary union] for a 'possibly extended' transition period before introducing its own currency.

“This would minimise disruption to trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK, but Scotland would be left without control of its own monetary policy, meaning it could not set interest rates or use quantitative easing to respond to economic shocks.

“As a member of the EU, Scottish trade with the rest of the UK would be governed by the same rules as apply to trade between Great Britain and the EU.

“This would create new barriers to trade across the Anglo-Scottish border.”

For now, it seems the UK’s next prime minister will be in no hurry to face this political headache.

“Whoever takes his job next, the UK will always be stronger together than it would be apart,” Mr Bowie said.

Updated: August 05, 2022, 10:42 PM