Will there be another Scottish independence referendum?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Between the tight independence referendum result in 2014 and the UK EU membership referendum in 2016 where Scotland voted to remain by a large margin, while the UK as a whole voted to leave, the Scottish independence question seems far from settled.

And yet, the dream of independence is running away from its supporters even as many of the reasons to remain, such as economic and political stability and certainty, have evaporated.

The argument for Scotland to remain in the UK was won by an appeal to pragmatism. Scotland would most likely be better off staying put, it would continue to be able to use the Pound Sterling at a time when the Euro still seemed far more fragile and there would be no questions raised over its trade with its largest trading partner, the rest of the UK.

There would also be no questions over remaining in the European Union where Spain had already warned that it would block automatic Scottish membership to deter its own Catalan separatists, and Scotland would continue to enjoy a fiscal windfall under the Barnett formula.

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Things were far from perfect in Scotland, but they were better than it was commonly appreciated, and romantic notions of identity and independence did not, in the end, sway the people of Scotland to risk all the advantages that their country had, in the pursuit of national pride over national well-being.

Come 2016, however, the people of the UK as a whole have gone and done just that: they have gambled away their national well-being and international clout in the pursuit of romantic notions of identity and independence.

In doing so, they have imposed the same choice on Scotland as well. Understandably, many in Scotland were furious. Furious enough that Scottish independence seemed back on the table.

SNP are rapidly losing the hearts and minds of the Scottish people through their own actions in government and with them, the dream of Scottish independence is slowly but surely ebbing away

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Automatic EU membership

Then Spain abandoned its veto on automatic EU membership for Scotland if they chose to separate from the UK in able to remain in the EU and supporters of Scottish independence now had an entirely new and far more compelling question for the Scottish people: which Union shall we be members of, the British or the European?

And yet, the dream of independence seems farther away from Scotland now than at any time since 2010. The reason for that boils down to just one factor: the SNP. The independence project is inextricably linked to the Scottish National Party. And the party’s star is dwindling rapidly.

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Just three years ago, during the 2015 UK general election, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was Britain’s most popular politician, drawing approving glances not just in Scotland, where her personal net approval ratings and First Minister were floating in the 40-50 percent region, but throughout the British Isles.

Today, her net approval ratings in Scotland have dwindled to 0 percent, and seem to continue to be heading downward.

Overall, the party, even in coalition with the pro-independence Scottish Greens, seem on course to lose the numbers they need in the Scottish Parliament elections to call a second independence referendum after 2021. And rightly so.

Progressive rhetoric

The SNP have been in government in Scotland since 2007. Since then, despite all its great social-democratic and progressive rhetoric, they have lagged behind in devolved areas of public spending such as health and education to even the Conservative-led austerity governments in Westminster and economic growth in Scotland has lagged behind that in the rest of the UK, despite the fiscal advantages that Scotland enjoys.

The SNP have been in government for 11 years now. The conspiracy theories proffered by their leaders that everything going wrong in Scotland is the fault of the “Westminster Tories” are wearing increasingly thin. The fact of the matter is that the SNP are not very competent administrators of the public good, and not nearly as progressive as they claim to be.

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These facts are becoming inescapable. And as trust in their competence is sinking, so is trust in their ability to deliver a Scottish independence that would actually benefit the people of Scotland. Nor is there great enthusiasm for an untrammelled SNP government at Holyrood in a post-independence world.

The SNP once won the hearts and minds of the Scottish people and came closer to persuading them to purse the path of independence than at any time since the Act of Union. Now the SNP are rapidly losing the hearts and minds of the Scottish people through their own actions in government, and with them, the dream of Scottish independence is slowly but surely ebbing away.

Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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