Scottish government’s renewed bid for independence: some background data

SNP stance propelled by opinion polls, Boris Johnson’s unpopularity · UK Prime Minister sticks to “stronger together” narrative on Scotland whirlwind visit

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon holds pro-independence banner, 2019.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon holds pro-independence banner, 2019. Author: SNP
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has unveiled a Scottish government’s plan to hold a second independence referendum if, in next May’s elections, pro-independence parties win a majority. The SNP seeks to reach an agreement with the UK government, but in case that is not possible, the pro-independence party does not rule out a legal and political conflict. Boris Johnson, for the moment, is sticking to a strict “no”, despite some speculation to the contrary. The following are important facts and figures to take into account in order to have some context.

20 polls in a row with “yes” to independence in the lead

From June 2020 until today, all 20 polls released show “yes” to independence ahead of “no”, with a margin of 2 to 14 points. In about half of the polls, the undecided could still give victory to the “no” side. Anyway, this is the first time in history that there has been such a long series of polls placing independence as the preferred option among Scots.

65 seats: will the SNP have a parliamentary majority?

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) says her party will pass a referendum bill after the election if the SNP —alone or with another party, such as the Greens —has the required 65-seat majority in the Scottish Parliament. Such a majority now exists —the SNP and the Greens together hold more than half the seats. According to polls, it could be enlarged after the May election, as both parties are predicted to grow.

The SNP says that, with a very large pro-independence mandate —perhaps more than 50 per cent of the vote— the UK government will have no democratic argument for refusing to negotiate a second referendum. Floating around is the unpopularity of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Scotland, as well as the perceived democratic anomaly —if not some lack of legitimacy— of Scotland being ruled, more time than not, by successive UK Conservative cabinets when this party has not won an election north of the border since 1959.

Any good news from polls for the unionist camp?

The Panelbase poll commissioned by The Sunday Times and released on 23 January shows that only 22% of Scots think their country would be better off economically if it were independent. The same number of people think it would be the same, and twice as many (44%) think it would be worse off.

After the 2014 referendum, a survey showed that 57% of people who voted against independence did so mainly because of economic uncertainties. It would be reasonable to think that unionists could insist, in an eventual second referendum campaign, on the economic incentives of Scotland remaining in the UK.

It must be said, however, that the playing field has changed: the economic impact of the pandemic and that of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union —which is seriously hitting, among other sectors, Scottish fishermen— may change those figures.

Stronger together” against the pandemic

Given the data pointing to this pro-independence surge, some UK commentators hoped that Boris Johnson’s whirlwind and controversial visit to Scotland on Thursday 28th would be the start of a new strategy: on the one hand, insisting that the United Kingdom is stronger if it is united and that this can lead to a better way out of the pandemic; on the other, however, opening the door —albeit not immediately— to a third way between immobility and independence, that would end up configuring a more or less federal United Kingdom. A few days ago, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned that the country risks becoming a “failed state” if constitutional changes are not implemented, and called for the formation of a “commission on democracy” for reform.

At the moment of truth, however, Johnson has made no mention of any proposal for constitutional reform, and has taken refuge in the usual arguments: “stronger together” and “the people don’t want a second referendum” —contrary to what surveys and recent election results suggest. Such an attitude — at least so far— is clearly detached from that of his predecessor in office, David Cameron.

365 seats: a strong Conservative Party in London

Any agreed way to a second referendum depends on Johnson’s Conservative government’s compromise. The Tories have a comfortable majority in the House of Commons (365 seats out of 650) and govern alone. Nor have any of the other UK-wide parties said they are in favour of allowing a second referendum —quite the opposite— although Labour has not rejected it outright. In any case, they would not have the strength to push Johnson, even if they wanted to.

What is more, in the last election campaign in 2019 the Conservatives pledged to “stop” a second referendum, not least because not enough time has gone since the previous one in 2014. There is a phrase that hangs over the debate: “Once in a generation opportunity.”

How many years “a generation” lasts?

The above phrase was uttered by former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, before the 2014 referendum. Unionists, and especially the Conservative Party, want to see in it a commitment from the pro-independence camp not to hold another independence referendum in the short term. The pro-independence camp retorts that the sentence does not entail any real limitation.

In any case, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, has put a figure on it: a generation, he says, is “25 or 40 years.” Johnson has put it around 2045.

Of course, this is pure speculation. It is not written how long a generation lasts, nor what its limits are. Conventionally, generations such as the boomers, the Xers, the millennials... span some 15 or 20 years. Nor, in the first place, is there any rule saying multiple referendums within a generation cannot be called: indeed, within the UK itself, the Good Friday Agreements provide that referendums in Northern Ireland can be held once every 7 years, not every generation.

The big picture: how hard is to win a referendum and implement independence

Finally, a general issue, which speaks of the difficulty of achieving independence, even if a referendum can be held. The percentage of countries that become independent after holding referendums is relatively low, with the exception of the break-up of states or empires. Thus, during the 21st century there have been 17 independence referendums organised by governments. Only two (Montenegro and South Sudan) have resulted in the creation of a new state with international recognition, while a third (Bougainville) is pending negotiations. In all three cases, there was an agreement between the parent state and the secessionist entity.