In the aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the EU in June 2016, Scotland seemed to be on the brink of independence.
Scots rejected Brexit by an overwhelming 24 point margin, prompting Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon – the head of Scotland’s semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh – to start preparing the ground for a fresh referendum on separation from the UK.
Support for independence surged. Enthusiasm for the 310-year-old union with London melted away. Sturgeon caught the mood of the Scottish public when she described the prospect of Scotland being stripped of its EU membership by eurosceptic voters in England and Wales as “democratically unacceptable.”
Since then, however, Scotland’s First Minister has been forced into a dizzying strategic retreat. Nationalist sentiment has ebbed. The SNP lost 21 of its 56 MPs at the British general election last June. And plans for a re-run of the first independence poll in 2014, which saw 55 per cent of Scots opt to remain part of the UK, were abruptly shelved.
The question of when another independence referendum should take place, and of how it could be won, is now the source of an increasingly bitter rift within the once unified ranks of Scotland’s nationalist movement.
Last week, Pete Wishart, the SNP’s longest serving MP, urged independence supporters to be patient in their demands for ‘indyref2.’ Staging another referendum too soon and losing, he warned, would be terminal for Scottish nationalism, as it has been for the secessionist campaign in Quebec.
“The lesson from Quebec is that a defeated second referendum could set back the cause of independence by decades,” Wishart wrote. “[And] there is no guarantee that the movement would bounce back.”
The online response was savage. A hard-core of SNP activists rounded on Wishart, questioning his commitment to independence and even accusing him of being a “poster boy” for a pro-UK lobbying group, Scotland in Union. But behind the Twitter frenzy, a more nuanced critique of Wishart’s position could be found.
Many senior nationalists believe the window for another referendum is rapidly closing. They point to polls indicating that Scotland’s two main pro-independence parties – the SNP and the Greens – are on course to lose their combined majority in the Scottish Parliament at the next devolved election in 2021, which would create a sizeable legislative stumbling block to self-government.
Instead, they want Sturgeon to call a vote on independence either just before or just after the UK formally exits the EU in March 2019. This, they argue, would allow Scotland to escape the economic upheaval of Brexit, salvage its place in Europe, and bring the curtain down on a decade of UK government austerity cuts.
“Decisions made in Scotland are better decisions for Scotland,” Chris McEleny, a candidate in the SNP’s ongoing deputy leadership race, stated this week. “That is why I believe we should have a referendum on our independence within the next 18 months.”
In reality, if Sturgeon did decide to gamble on a snap poll, the conditions for a nationalist victory would be far from favourable.
First of all, the Scottish electorate is in no rush to renew the battle over Scotland’s constitutional status. According to one recent survey, nearly 60 per cent of Scots oppose holding another referendum at any point in the next few years, while just 30 per cent of Scots actively expect independence to occur within the next ten to twenty years.
Secondly, the move would undoubtedly trigger a protracted legal challenge from Westminster that would take months to resolve and could result in a Catalan-style stand-off between Scottish politicians and the British legal authorities.
Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – there is in fact very little sign of any sustained backlash against Brexit among Scottish voters.
Despite the mounting threat Brexit poses to the UK’s economic health, and Theresa May’s inept handling of the Brexit negotiations, support for independence – the only political mechanism capable of rescuing Scotland’s EU membership – has stalled somewhere around the 45 percent mark, which is more or less where it’s been since September 2014.
This fact illustrates the underlying dilemma facing the SNP as it attempts to grapple with Brexit: Scots may be more pro-European than people in other parts of the UK, but only up to a point – and if they are forced to choose between sharing sovereignty with Brussels and sharing it with London, all the evidence suggests they will pick London as the safer and more familiar option, even if that means remaining moored to a country wracked by rising levels of political and economic uncertainty.
There are risks associated with inaction, too.
In what is widely seen as an attack on the principle of Scottish devolution, Westminster is trying to repatriate powers from Brussels that should otherwise revert to the Scottish Parliament after Brexit. And, of course, the SNP’s dominance of the Scottish electoral landscape won’t last forever. Moreover, as the unexpected success of Jeremy Corbyn demonstrated last year, public attitudes can change dramatically in an instant.
But these considerations have to be weighed against the possibility of losing two independence referendums in half a decade. Given its current internal tensions, Scottish nationalism almost certainly wouldn’t survive that. Ironically for Nicola Sturgeon, having fought hard against Brexit, she wouldn’t survive it either.