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‘Sturgeon’s Resignation Makes Scottish Independence More Unlikely – But the Union is as Troubled as Ever’

The Scottish First Minister’s exit makes the possibility of a new referendum even less likely, writes Jonathan Lis

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announces her resignation at Bute House in Edinburgh on 15 February 2023. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA/Alamy

Sturgeon’s Resignation Makes Scottish Independence More Unlikely – But the Union is as Troubled as Ever

The Scottish First Minister’s exit makes the possibility of a new referendum even less likely, writes Jonathan Lis

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The resignation of Nicola Sturgeon was a shock but perhaps should not have been a surprise. Scotland’s First Minister has been in post for nine years – a comparative rarity for a British leader – and it is entirely plausible that she was, as she professed, tired.

Even her opponents have acknowledged her formidable talent and charisma. It is hard to imagine another figure winning five successive national elections, as she has done since 2015. Unlike her predecessor Alex Salmond, widely viewed as abrasive and arrogant, she has crafted a persona with both seriousness and empathy, overseen by an instinctive ability to communicate.

It was for this reason that she has come almost to embody Scotland’s independence movement. Many analysts have now dismissed the prospect of future independence altogether. What happens to the movement now?

The question consists of two parts – securing a new referendum; and the actual referendum campaign.

It is reasonable to conclude that Sturgeon resigned, in part, because she failed in her basic objective: to hold a new referendum on independence.

The first referendum in 2014 was, as unionists always note, intended to be a once-in-a-generation poll, but the Scottish National Party always maintained that material changes to Scotland’s circumstances would nullify that formulation.

It was entirely legitimate to argue that Brexit constituted such a change and, as such, the SNP has stood on a platform of reopening the independence question ever since. Scotland’s voters have endorsed the party at the four national elections since the 2016 EU Referendum and, in 2021, the SNP formed a Government at Holyrood with the explicit purpose of implementing that manifesto commitment.

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Regardless of one’s views on independence, then, the SNP demonstrably earned the right at the ballot box to hold a new referendum – much as the Conservatives earned the right to hold a referendum on the EU. It is thus demonstrably unjust that the will of Scottish voters can be subject to a veto by one individual in Downing Street.

And yet, that remains the policy both of the UK Government and the Labour Opposition. There is no mechanism for Scotland to secede or for Scottish voters to request a new referendum. For all intents and purposes, Scotland does not have the right to self-determination.

On this fundamental issue, Sturgeon simply ran out of road. Even the most talented politician of her generation could not surmount the law. The Supreme Court made it clear that the Scottish Government did not have the capacity to hold a referendum, even on an advisory basis, and Holyrood cannot force Westminster to grant it one. If a prime minister is so minded, they can refuse it indefinitely.

Sturgeon’s resignation now makes a new plebiscite even less likely. The First Minister was able to use her political skills to communicate her arguments and win popular support for them. Her successor is unlikely to do so.

Crucially, the next first minister will inherit falling polling ratings for the SNP and have less influence at Westminster. That will decrease further if, as expected, the SNP wins fewer seats at the next general election – not simply through Sturgeon’s absence, but normal electoral gravity after so long at the top. Bluntly, if successive prime ministers found it possible to refuse Sturgeon her key request all this time, they will find it even easier to refuse her replacement.

More damaging is the result of Sturgeon’s announced Plan B: to treat the general election as a de facto referendum. In truth, the plan was never credible. The SNP has never won more than 50% of the votes in a UK general election. Even in 2015, when the party stormed to a landslide in Scotland following the 2014 referendum, winning all but three seats, it only polled 49.97%. (In 2019, when Sturgeon was perhaps at the peak of her powers, it garnered 45%). With the party’s waning fortunes, it is almost inconceivable that it might win an absolute majority of votes next time around. 

Part of Sturgeon’s genius has been to coalesce both hardened pro-independence voters and social-democratic unionists or waverers. If confronted with a single-issue platform, many in the latter category may take fright. And without Sturgeon’s skills, many are unlikely to vote SNP to begin with.

The problem therefore becomes critical. The Supreme Court was Plan A and Plan B cannot succeed. There is currently no Plan C for a referendum except to keep asking for one.

But the problems do not end there. Suppose that a new Labour government does a deal with the SNP (contrary to Keir Starmer’s promises) and allows a referendum during the next Parliament. As things stand, the chances of success do not seem high.

Politically, the case for independence may have been made. Brexit has been a running sore, with the views of the Scottish Government and voters alike not simply ignored but actively overruled at every stage. Scotland has not voted for the Conservatives since 1955 and it seems unlikely that a majority will vote for Labour next time. Brexit-style arguments about sovereignty, mixed (ironically) with pro-EU sentiment, could attract a large share of the electorate.

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And yet economic arguments could be decisive. Whereas in 2014 the greatest issues for the Yes (independence) and No (unionist) camps, respectively, were Scotland’s oil deposits and its future currency, this time the most prominent economic debate would centre on two key issues: the cost of living crisis and the border with England.

In 2014, oil prices were high and the economy strong. In the aftermath of Brexit, COVID, the war in Ukraine and a likely recession, the economic circumstances after 2024 or 2025 will be much more hostile.

Brexit may provide a political template for separation but hardly a monetary or commercial one. And Brexit’s other template is even less happy. If an independent Scotland wishes to join the EU – surely one of the trump cards of a new Yes campaign – it will have to erect a new EU border. That may be less problematic than the land border rejected on the island of Ireland, but deeply costly and disruptive, and potentially ruinous to many of England and Scotland’s supply chains. 

It could prove that, even if a majority of Scottish voters favour independence with their hearts, their decision is ultimately made with their heads. Whatever the democratic justification for a new referendum, and the political advantages of seceding from the UK, the economic case will be extremely difficult to argue.

But the truth remains as it has for many years: Scotland has, in spirit, already left the Union. If it remains, because the economic headwinds seem to make the choice too difficult or because it is not granted the chance to vote at all, that has key implications for how the Union now operates, both practically and theoretically.

Sturgeon’s resignation makes Scottish independence more unlikely in the short- and medium-term – but the Union seems as troubled as ever.

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