Horizon 2023 or beyond for second Scottish independence referendum

Nicola Sturgeon.
Nicola Sturgeon. Author: SNP
The SNP’s victory and the enlargement of the pro-independence parties’ absolute majority in the 6 May election to the Scottish Parliament has strengthened the Scottish government’s call for a second self-determination referendum. But the UK government’s refusal to negotiate and the threat of a court case make a vote unlikely in the short term.

Has support for pro-independence parties significantly increased?

Slightly. The two pro-independence parties have won 72 seats out of 129 in the Scottish Parliament —64 for the SNP and 8 for the Greens. In 2016, they won 3 less: 69 (63 + 6). In vote percentage, they have also grown: in 2016, pro-independence parties as a whole won 47% of the votes in the constituency vote and 49% in the regional vote. The percentages have now increased to 49% and 51% respectively.

What has the Scottish First Minister said?

Nicola Sturgeon has said that, in the light of the results, the question is no longer whether the referendum will take place, but when. Deputy First Minister John Swinney has specified that Scotland will be “ready” for the vote once the pandemic situation is “stable” and the prevalence of the virus is “suppressed,” which the Scottish government estimates could happen in 2022 at the earliest. The SNP’s manifesto includes a commitment to do so during "the first half of the parliamentary term", that is, before the end of 2023.

And will it be able to do so?

At the moment, no one knows. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted that he will not give permission for a referendum and has on occasion said that, in his opinion, none should be held until 2045. This, in theory, removes the possibility that a referendum could be agreed as was done in 2011 by Alex Salmond and David Cameron.

Can the Scottish government then seek a unilateral referendum?

Without an agreement, Sturgeon says she will still bring a Referendum Act to the Scottish Parliament which, predictably, will provide for a vote with the same question as in 2014: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”. Two scenarios open up here. The first is for the UK government to take the law to the UK Supreme Court, and for the judges to decide whether the referendum can be held. This would delay deadlines —and, perhaps, might favour an understanding between the two governments in the meantime. The second is that the UK government refrains from further action: after the SNP victory, UK’s Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has said that his government would not take any Scottish referendum law to court. What does this mean? London could seek to simply ignore it and leave the referendum without a proper “no” campaign, which would probably doom the vote to failure.

What do opinion polls currently show?

Preferences on independence have been fairly evenly split since 2021 began. Poll results vary from month to month, and most agree that right now those undecided would swing the result one way or the other. However, the value of these polls is relative, given that no one —not even the Scottish government— foresees a short term vote.

How long can the debate drag on?

It is impossible that the referendum be held in 2021 and very unlikely in 2022. This brings the issue to 2023 at the earliest. This will also depend on the course of events: whether the process is taken to court or not, eventual changes in priorities or perspectives in the UK government that could favour a referendum deal... All this could —despite what the SNP manifesto says— postpone the issue until 2024 or beyond, after the next UK election.

It is worth recalling, for example, that two years passed between the Cameron-Salmond agreement and the holding of the first independence referendum, and that campaigns for and against independence were active for 27 months. It seems unlikely, then, that much less than two years would pass between an eventual green light for the referendum and its holding.