Briefing

The new push for Scottish independence, explained

Why the United Kingdom might not be so united

Scotland is going to make another bid for its freeeeeeedom. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, announced on Tuesday that her government wants to hold a nationwide referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. She proposed to hold the vote on Oct. 19, 2023. 

There is some legal wrangling to be done between now and then if the vote is to actually take place and be meaningful. The government of Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, must give its permission for the vote to proceed — but "no such consent from Westminster will be forthcoming," Andrew McDonald reports for Politico. Still, Sturgeon plans to press ahead anyway, saying British rule over Scotland "cannot be based on anything other than a consented, voluntary partnership."

Independence would break up a very long-standing relationship: Scotland has been part of Great Britain since 1707. Why part ways now? Here's everything you need to know: 

Wait. Haven't the Scots voted down independence before?

Yes. In 2014, Scots were asked to vote on a separation from the United Kingdom — and the proposal failed by a 55-45 percent margin. That was supposedly a "once in a generation" chance at independence, but the independence-seeking Scottish National Party has spent the years since then lining up the "support for a rerun," says NPR's Willem Marx

Earlier this month, Sturgeon released the first in a series of policy papers making the case that an independent Scotland would be "wealthier, happier, fairer." Breaking away from the U.K. would give "crucial decision-making power" to "the people who live here" — and not London-based officials who "pursue policies, for example, Brexit, that are deeply damaging to Scotland's interests." She suggests that "other countries in northwest Europe, regardless of size, frequently out-perform the U.K. across a range of key measures that determine well-being" and concludes that "if the status quo is not working, we should ask how best to fix it." Her answer, obviously, is independence.

Why might this time be different than 2014? 

Brexit. Two years after Scottish voters decided to stay in the United Kingdom, the kingdom's voters decided to leave the European Union. Scotland, however, voted to remain. Why? Because the EU had spent recent decades funding improvements in Scotland — part of an effort to help the union's poorer regions catch up with the richer countries — while at the same time the United Kingdom "devolved" some of its powers back to constituent countries. "The twin factors of the EU's greater role in Scotland and the devolution of powers to Edinburgh have helped bolster Scottish nationalism," Elliot Ross wrote for The Atlantic in 2019. "The most resonant phrase in Scottish politics right now, repeated everywhere, is that Brexit will see Scotland dragged out of Europe against our will."

The COVID-19 pandemic has also played a role. Much like former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the United States, Sturgeon held regular press briefings that were popular among the public, and support for independence began to rise. Johnson's own self-inflicted troubles stemming from the pandemic — the scandal known as "Partygate" — have also given Sturgeon a pathway to the referendum: A January poll by The Scotsman found that more than half of respondents thought the affair had hurt the case for remaining in the Union. 

But polls also suggest the latest independent effort might be dicey: An Ipsos poll in May gave a slight majority — 51 percent — to voters who want to stay in the U.K. 

What's next?

Sturgeon's first act will be to try to bypass Johnson's government. She has "asked Scotland's senior law officer the Lord Advocate to go to the U.K. Supreme Court to get a ruling on whether the Scottish Parliament alone has the power to hold a legal consultative referendum," David Mac Dougal reports for Euro News. If that doesn't work out, then Sturgeon plans to take the issue directly to U.K. voters, and "her party will fight the next U.K. general election on the sole question of independence." Even if the referendum is successful, that doesn't mean independence is automatic. "Legislation would have to be passed by both the U.K. and Scottish parliaments to give effect to the decision," John-Paul Ford Rojas reports for Sky News.

However, there are still a number of Scots who want to remain in the United Kingdom. "Johnson's Conservatives, the largest opposition party in the Scottish Parliament, have said they would boycott any referendum that was called unilaterally," Rodney Jefferson writes for Bloomberg. They'll make the case that instead of spending time and effort on independence, "Sturgeon should be focusing on improving the health service and education."

Either way, it's certain to be the topic of fierce debate for a year or more. The results could be historic, as Sturgeon acknowledged Tuesday. "Now is the time, at this critical moment in history, to debate and decide the future of our country."

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