It might even strengthen the union.
The 2014 referendum on Scottish independence showed a 55% majority in favour of the union. However, there have been a number of events since 2014 that have resulted in calls for a second referendum.
First of all, there was Brexit. The British parliament implemented a hard Brexit on the basis of a referendum with a thin majority of 51.9% and despite the fact that two of the UK’s nations (Scotland and Northern Ireland) voted to remain in the EU.
Subsequent opinion polls even suggested a reversed majority in favour of Remain, with one recent poll indicating that only 32% of the British public now thinks it was right to leave the EU.
In 2016, the Scottish first minister requested that Scotland should remain inside the European Single Market. The British government did not bother to consider this proposal, although Boris Johnson subsequently agreed on continued membership of both the single market and the customs union for Northern Ireland.
The Scottish opinion polls have also changed since 2014: in 2020/2021 there seemed to be a majority in favour of independence. More recent opinion polls, however, are finely balanced, with support for independence hovering between around 49 and 50 percent.
The third important change has been in relation to the economic case for a viable independent Scotland. Scotland has a gap between tax revenues and expenditure, which could be problematic if Scotland became an independent state. This “fiscal deficit” could only be partially filled if North Sea oil and gas revenues from Scottish waters were transferred to an independent Scotland.
However, the recent spike in energy prices has meant that an independent Scotland could count on greater revenues. This is not, however, a valid long-term consideration, as fossil fuels prices are likely to drop and their extraction will decrease as we move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources.
Referendum on independence
Nicola Sturgeon had planned to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence in October 2023. However, the Supreme Court has now ruled that a second independence referendum, even just an advisory one, cannot take place without the approval of the British government.
According to Nicola Sturgeon, the only democratic option left would be to transform the next general election into a virtual referendum, in which a majority for nationalist parties in Scotland would imply majority support for independence.
Whether Scotland should be independent is a matter for the Scots to decide. Scottish politicians have been more honest about the damage caused by Brexit, but a separation from the rest of the UK would cause further damage to the Scottish economy.
However, it seems to me that Nicola Sturgeon does have a case in calling for a second referendum. Denying this request would contradict the assertion that the UK is a voluntary partnership of nations.
Gavin McCrone, the author of a recently published book – After Brexit, the Economics of Scottish Independence, 2022 –, argues that the rejection of a second referendum would not be a tenable position if there was evidence of sustained support for independence.
According to McCrone, our first-past-the-post electoral system has bolstered support for independence in Scotland, where they see the Conservatives as imposing hard-right policies in the past 12 years, even though they represent a minority in the UK and an even smaller share of the vote in Scotland.
The Conservatives are also the party that has always opposed just devolution, with Boris Johnson recently defining Scottish devolution as a mistake.
If a second referendum was to take place, it should not be decided by a 51% vote for independence on the day, as public opinion is volatile.
McCrone argues that we should follow John Major’s suggestion of two referendums, one on the principle of independence and the second at a later stage to ensure that the public still favour independence once all the details and implications have been thrashed out. The People’s Vote had campaigned for the same approach in relation to Brexit.
It may also be wrong to offer a choice just between the status quo and full independence. An alternative option could be enhanced devolution, or a federal UK, as proposed by the Scottish LibDems.
Referendums may be divisive, but denying them could be worse.