In Brief

What’s Next for Scotland’s Independence Movement?

The victory of pro-independence parties in Scotland’s elections means that another referendum is on the agenda. What’s at stake, and what comes next?

After its victory in Scotland’s May 6 parliamentary elections, the Scottish National Party (SNP) vowed to hold a new referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. However, pro-independence forces will face opposition from London, and the implications of an independent Scotland for the European Union—and for other European independence movements—remain unclear. 

Why is independence back on the agenda in Scotland?

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Scotland—which entered a voluntary union with England in 1707—has seen a growing independence movement since the 1970s, due in part to the rise of the SNP and dissatisfaction over London’s control of revenue from North Sea oil. Growing demands for the devolution of power from Westminster to Edinburgh led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

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However, a 2014 referendum on independence from the UK failed after 55 percent of the Scottish public voted against it. A major issue in that vote was the desire to stick with the UK’s long-standing membership in the EU rather than secede and apply for EU membership as an independent nation. The 2016 Brexit vote changed that calculus: Scotland’s voters overwhelmingly rejected breaking with the EU, and many view the UK withdrawal as a deep betrayal. 

The COVID-19 pandemic further spurred support for Scottish independence, which now polls over 50 percent, because of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s adept handling of the crisis, which contrasted sharply with London’s mismanagement. Health policy is one of the primary devolved powers, and the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood established separate curfews, lockdowns, and related coronavirus restrictions, competently navigating uncharted waters. This also effectively neutralized another of the arguments against independence from 2014, that the Scottish government cannot operate effectively in a crisis.

Demographic trends are also a strong propellant for the independence movement. A 2020 public opinion poll found that over 70 percent of Scots aged 16–34 support independence.

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What were the election results?

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gives a thumbs up to supporters.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrives at her official residence after the May 6 parliamentary elections. Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Sturgeon vowed to seek a new referendum if pro-independence parties won a majority. And indeed, the SNP, which has led the Scottish Parliament since 2007, achieved a historic fourth-consecutive victory. Though its 64 seats fell short of an outright majority in the 129-seat chamber by 1, it will form a pro-independence alliance with the Scottish Green Party, which controls 8 seats. Sturgeon has declared that a fresh referendum is a matter of “when, not if.”

Still, the first minister will have to navigate a delicate policy landscape, especially on clean energy, to maintain the Scottish Greens’ support. And the immediate priority remains steering Scotland’s pandemic recovery, which could work to the advantage of the nationalist movement by giving it time to shore up support ahead of another vote.

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Does Scotland have the authority to call a referendum under British law?

Although Section 30 of the 1998 Scotland Act enables Holyrood to pass legislation traditionally under the jurisdiction of Westminster, including on holding an independence referendum, the UK prime minister must first approve the step. Since the devolution, Section 30 orders have been utilized sixteen times, including in 2014, when former British Prime Minister David Cameron entered an agreement with then SNP leader Alex Salmond to convene the first independence referendum.

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated that he will deny any request to hold a new referendum. That could prove politically untenable, as many Scots agree with journalist Jamie Maxwell that a Johnson veto would be tantamount to “transforming Britain from a voluntary association based on consent into a compulsory one.” As the SNP’s Michael Russell argued at a 2020 CFR event, “no one has the right to hold the march of a nation. If the people of Scotland say they want a referendum…anybody who is democratic has to accept that that is a right.” However, it could require an unprecedented challenge in the courts to overrule London’s opposition under Section 30.

How would the EU handle entry of Scotland as an independent nation?

Scotland would need to achieve formal independence prior to submitting its application for membership to the EU. That could take several years, followed by several more to achieve all the benchmarks needed to join the EU. As a newly sovereign state, Scotland would likely be required to follow the formal application procedures outlined in Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union, which requires the unanimous consent of all twenty-seven EU members. An initiative gaining momentum among prominent Scottish figures calls on the EU to provide an accelerated path given Scotland’s long association with the bloc. 

Edinburgh would also face intense pressure from Brussels to adopt the common euro currency, but that could prove difficult, as Scotland could try to maintain the British pound or even revert to the much older Scottish pound.

How could this affect other European independence movements?

Other European subnational independence movements, such as in Spain’s Catalonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska, and the UK’s Northern Ireland and Wales, are likely watching Scotland’s next moves closely. Many in both Northern Ireland and Wales worry that an independent Scotland would leave the UK more unbalanced in favor of London, which could lead to increasing aspirations of self-rule.

For now, Sturgeon is playing the long game. Once the COVID-19 crisis has passed, she will press Johnson for a new referendum, probably by the end of 2023. The open question for independence movements elsewhere in Europe is whether they will similarly find a legally sound path to sovereignty within their national constitutional architecture—or if they will diverge from the Scottish example to seek a more chaotic secession.

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