Nicola Sturgeon’s attempt to organize a new referendum on Scottish independence next October has put the future of the United Kingdom back at the center of political debate. The chances of a plebiscite happening on the prime minister’s schedule are slim; the UK government and the Supreme Court – where Sturgeon has sought a court ruling – are likely to block it. But his Scottish National Party could use such obstacles to fuel a narrative that the UK is no longer a willing partnership and create a simmering standoff with Westminster. If Boris Johnson’s Conservative government ignores these risks, it will jeopardize the future of one of the most successful political unions in history.
The Prime Minister’s tactic is politically astute. They renew the momentum around the question of independence, appeasing party activists. They allow Sturgeon to claim moral superiority and reassure moderate Scots, insisting that she is committed to organizing a legal referendum, not a “wildcat” ballot as Catalonia does so badly.
The Sturgeon plan is still a gamble. If granted, a referendum in less than 16 months would be very risky for his cause. Opposition parties have threatened to boycott him, depriving him of all legitimacy. Opinion polls suggest most Scots oppose another independence plebiscite before the end of 2023.
However, it is much more likely that the Supreme Court will rule that Scotland cannot legally hold an independence referendum without the approval of the British government, as it involves constitutional issues that fall within the jurisdiction of Westminster. Sturgeon has the good sense to exploit such a decision to fuel the feeling among Scots of being locked into a marriage with a careless partner who is on a divergent path. This sentiment was crystallized by the 2016 Brexit vote, which pulled Scotland out of the EU against its majority will – and is the SNP’s central argument for a new sovereignty vote.
The UK government is right to point out that the 2014 referendum in Scotland was billed as a once-in-a-generation event, and that a repeat would be a distraction from more pressing issues. Using the 2024 general election as a de facto independence poll, as Sturgeon says she will if a referendum is blocked, has no validity. But obstructionism is not a sustainable strategy. Rather, a proactive approach is needed.
One strand should be to defuse claims that Scotland is in any way ‘trapped’ by laying down ground rules on how it could leave the UK – the triggers and conditions for any future referendum – providing at least some clarity as, for example, in Northern Ireland.
The government must, in the meantime, win over the arguments in favor of maintaining the union, weaken support for a referendum and ensure a “no” to independence if ever there is one. This means challenging the SNP on the pitfalls of going it alone. Scotland is still dependent on a large tax transfer from the UK and, if it were to remain in the EU, it would now have to create a hard border with its biggest trading partner, England.
Above all, ministers must be seen to be governing, in style and substance, for the good of the whole of the UK, not just England – or the Tory-backed parts of England. They are expected to launch reforms to give Scots a greater voice in Westminster, such as converting the House of Lords into an elected senate of nations and regions.
However, much of what the Johnson administration has done to date goes in the opposite direction, from driving through the toughest Brexit possible to a style of government that relies on ‘corner’ issues to retain power. The 315-year-old union needs reform, but is worth fighting politically to preserve. This British government has yet to show that it has the will or the ability to fight this fight effectively.