We're pleased to share an update from our friends in Scotland, Pagoda Porter Novelli, on the latest round of debate about independence...

 

A second referendum?

First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced last week that a second independence referendum could be held between autumn 2018 and spring 2019. Explaining the move, the First Minister said “Brexit has made change inevitable. The option of no change is no longer available. However, we can still decide the nature of that change.”

Following the SNP’s party conference in Aberdeen, this week she will seek the authority of the Scottish Parliament to request a Section 30 order from Westminster for another referendum bill. Green Party support guarantees that the S30 request will be passed at Holyrood.

Ms Sturgeon claimed that, despite her best efforts to secure a compromise with the UK government, she had met with “a brick wall of intransigence” from Theresa May. The language of partnership had “gone completely”; Scotland was being ignored and there was a Westminster power grab which sought to undermine the powers held by the Scottish Parliament.

While she left the door open to continue to reach a compromise with the UK Government in terms of a Brexit deal for Scotland, her tone suggested that she did not see this as a realistic outcome. In this context she said that the time had come for Scotland to “decide its own future”. Given that, in her view, Scotland had been pulled out of the EU against its will and the Conservatives might remain in power at Westminster until 2030, Scotland had to decide for itself, what sort of country it wanted to be.

She said that the Scottish Government would be realistic about the “challenges of independence” and would provide “clarity” about the economic position. The underlying assumption in Ms Sturgeon’s strategy is that should Scotland vote for independence prior to the UK leaving the European Union, it would be possible for Scotland to remain part of the EU or join shortly thereafter.

The ball is now in Theresa May’s court. Legally, Westminster has the power to block a plebiscite. Politically, it is unlikely that the UK would refuse a referendum but would want to have a say in the timing of the vote. Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson MSP however, responded to the First Minister’s statement by tweeting that Ms Sturgeon had "chosen the path of further division and uncertainty" and said her party would vote against the request for a Section 30 order.

So it is likely that Scotland will face a further two years of political turmoil. The country has yet to put the divisions of the 2014 referendum behind it and remains deeply divided. While the outcome of the second vote is difficult to judge, most polls still favour a No victory. One thing is sure however; the campaign will draw attention away from the important issues facing the SNP government such as education, health and social care, police and transport.

The First Minister has decided to be bold. She knows on current trends that the SNP – even with Green Party support – would be unlikely to command a majority for a second referendum following the 2021 Scottish general election, so she has decided to go now.

 

Europe

Former SNP Deputy Leader, Jim Sillars, still an influential figure in the independence movement, has said that he would refuse to support Scottish independence in a second referendum if it meant re- joining the European Union and that he would abstain. Criticising Nicola Sturgeon he said that she had miscalculated in believing that “the 1.6m Scots who voted to Remain would automatically then vote to go back into the European Union”.

He said that a vote for leaving the UK only to return to the EU would not be a vote for genuine independence because of a recent “massive transfer of sovereignty” to Brussels. Among the 1.6m Scots who voted to leave were 400,000 SNP voters, 36% of SNP members and as many as six sitting MSPs.

 

Oil

A Government leaflet distributed to voters in August 2014, the month before the first referendum, outlined “what independence means for you”. A section on public finances stated that “Scotland more than pays its way” and “North Sea oil and gas is a bonus.”

But former MSP, Andrew Wilson, Chair of Nicola Sturgeon’s Growth Commission has said that the SNP’s case for Scottish Independence in a new referendum would not be based on North Sea Oil and went on to criticise the way the issue was handled in the 2014 referendum.

He said that in 2014 the Yes side had described oil as a bonus but had “baked” the figures into its campaign. The White Paper, Scotland’s Future, had made a number of assumptions about income from oil, claiming that production in Scottish waters could generate approximately £48bn in tax revenue between 2012/13 and 2017/18 “based on industry estimates of production and an average cash price of approximately $113 per barrel”.

The price of a barrel of oil is now approximately half of the $113 estimate, while tax revenue generated in the last two years has effectively been zero. Indeed Andrew Wilson said that for the purposes of the Growth Commission’s work, the assumption will be that “oil is producing zero revenues”.

Mr Wilson’s Growth Commission, charged with building a credible economic case for independence, will report to the First Minister in the near future.

 

Opinion Polls

Ipsos MORI’s latest poll (carried out between 24/2 and 6/3: 1029 respondents) found that support for independence had risen and that Scots were evenly split. Ipsos MORI’s previous poll (six months ago) had those supporting independence at 47% with No at 53%.

Interestingly 48% of those polled, agreed that an independent Scotland should be a full member of the EU. Some 27% wished to remain in the single market, but outside the EU and a further 17% did not wish to be in the EU or the single market.

A Panelbase/Sunday Times poll (January 2017) asking Scots as to when a second referendum should be held found that 51% believed that it should not be held ‘pre Brexit’ with just 25% taking the view that it should be held in the next year. In the previous Panelbase poll (June 2016) 43% had wanted the referendum to be held ‘pre Brexit’.

A BMG poll for The Herald, (published 13/3) found that 41% supported independence with 44% opposing while 13% were unsure and 2% not saying. Excluding the “don’t knows”, the result was 52- 48 against independence. Asked if there should be another referendum 49% said No with 39% in favour and 13% unsure.

 

Scottish Local Government Elections May 4th 2017

Elections for all Scottish councils take place in May. The outcome will give an indication of the strength of support for the SNP. Current opinion polls give the SNP a strong lead with the Conservatives in second place, ahead of Labour.

The figures should be treated with an element of caution as the SNP consistently underpolls in council elections while the Conservative and Liberal Democrats share of the vote may be higher than the polls suggest. The SNP should win Glasgow, which it expected to gain in 2012, and a couple of other west coast councils.

However, based on the 2016 Holyrood election result, and recent local by-elections,the Conservatives are expected to do well in rural Scotland and the more affluent council areas in the central belt.

 

Conclusion 

The UK Government has to give approval to a second independence referendum. The First Minister may have suggested autumn 2018 to spring 2019 in the hope that Theresa May would respond by saying No, at least No to a referendum during the Brexit discussions. Nicola Sturgeon may hope that this will create a further grievance, pushing more Scots towards supporting separation.

For the First Minister the stakes are high. Both leaders who called the 2014 referendum and the Brexit referendum had to resign when the outcome was not one they had supported. Undoubtedly if Nicola Sturgeon were to lose, she too would have to step down. Should that happen, Alex Salmond has refused to rule out returning as leader for a third term.

From a nationalist perspective, it is unsurprising that the First Minister has decided to call a second referendum now as it is by no means certain that it would have a majority to do so following the next Scottish General Election. At the 2016 Holyrood Election, the party lost its overall majority and will have to rely on the Scottish Green Party, which currently has 6 Holyrood MSPs, to secure a parliamentary majority for a second referendum. While it remains likely that the SNP will remain the largest party at Holyrood post the 2021 Scottish election (currently with 63 MSPs v, Scottish Conservatives with 31 MSPs) it may be that, even with Green Party support it may be unable to secure a majority.

 

Keith Geddes is the Policy Director at Pagoda Porter Novelli and can be contacted here. 

 

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