The Corner

National Security & Defense

An Uphill Battle for Scottish Independence

Since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union last week, it has become received wisdom that Scotland will, at some point in the near future, secede from the U.K. It’s a compelling theory: Scotland voted heavily to remain in the E.U., and might see secession as the sole means of preserving E.U. membership. Secessionism is already a potent force in Scottish politics, especially in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum, and the politicians of the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party have been making angry noises about a second referendum. Brexit, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says, constitutes a substantive shift in the nature of Scotland’s relationship to the U.K., and thus justifies a new look at Scottish independence.

But what is easily imagined is not so easily realized, and the prognosis for Scottish independence may not have as robust a prognosis as is commonly thought. A Daily Mail poll released earlier today showed support for independence north of the border is strong, but not so strong: the electorate splits 53-47 in favor of leaving the U.K. That’s a large shift from the 55-45 majority in favor of remaining in the 2014 referendum, but it’s still only a six-point difference.

Assuming the poll captures sentiments accurately, Nicola Sturgeon would be foolish to demand a second independence referendum today. One of the key lessons from the EU referendum is that seemingly secure polling leads can easily be erased. If the nationalists do manage to force another referendum, it’ll be a must-win affair: After the 2014 vote, it was understood that the independence issue would rearise at some point, that it was only a matter of time before the government would be forced to confront the prospect of independence once more. A defeat in 2014 would be damaging, but not fatal. Losing a second referendum, though, would inflict a mortal wound, consigning independence to the scrap heap of noble political causes that simply failed to garner enough popular support. A mere six-point lead for independence is simply too narrow a margin to predicate a movement’s political future on; calling a referendum based on that six-point lead would be an enormously risky move.

The case for Scottish independence in the current moment is shaky in other regards, too. In 2014, nationalists forcefully argued that Scotland’s plentiful oil reserves in the North Sea would provide a stable basis for the independent nation’s finances, and would allow Scotland to become a Norway-style petrostate-cum-social democracy. That was a strong case in 2014, but now that the bottom has dropped out of the oil market and prices have collapsed, it doesn’t sound remotely as convincing as it once did. Add to that the fact that an independent Scotland would no longer receive payments from the U.K. government, and the financial case for independence looks like a tough one to make indeed.

Then there’s the question of whether an independent Scotland would even be allowed into the European Union. This seems to be taken as something of a given right now, but it shouldn’t be. Accession to the E.U. requires the unanimous assent of all current member states — all of the E.U.’s now-27 countries would need to give their okay to Scotland’s accession. But some countries are currently grappling with their own secessionist movements, and letting in the Scots after their own secession might send a positive signal to secessionists around Europe. In Spain, for instance, Scottish independence could embolden and set a precedent for the Catalonian secessionist movement, which has gathered momentum in recent years. And, it’s worth noting, the Spanish prime minister has recently expressed his opposition to negotiations with Scotland over its E.U. membership.

The greatest impediment to Scottish independence, though, may be the simple fact that the Scots cannot declare independence unilaterally. In the United Kingdom, Parliament is sovereign, and Parliament must grant its approval to a referendum for one to be held. David Cameron and his fellow Conservatives, the ruling party for the foreseeable future, show no willingness to grant Scotland even the chance at independence so soon after having saved the Union in the 2014 referendum. (At Prime Minister’s Questions today, Cameron repeatedly insisted that the best path forward for Scotland is to ensure the U.K. as a whole negotiates a close relationship with the E.U., not Scotland going its own way.)

However much Sturgeon and her Scottish allies clamor for independence, they cannot hold a vote on the matter unless Parliament assents to it. All of Britain’s political parties, with the exception of the SNP, campaigned against independence in 2014; with the experience of the extraordinarily bitter and divisive E.U. referendum behind them, it’s unlikely Parliament will have a majority in favor of embarking on an existential plebiscite at the time of the U.K.’s greatest need.  

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