How different will the next independence referendum be from the last?

14 Mar 2017

Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to ask for permission to hold a second Scottish independence is one which will present both sides of the argument with certain difficulties.


In spite of it being less than three years since the last vote occurred, the political playing field has changed massively, leading to Sturgeon’s current intentions, with the UK’s decision to leave the EU being the central change.


Any vote within the next couple of years will almost certainly present both sides with some major challenges, and entails a certain risk.


For the Yes camp, another No vote would likely put pave to independence for the considerable future. They have been able to continue in their pursuit of independence on the basis of the first No vote being conducted on broken promises, however a second No vote would perhaps have a certain finality to it, at least for a generation or two.


While they will be undoubtedly starting from a stronger position than last time, the polls are yet to show the Yes vote consistently winning. There is an argument that Sturgeon would benefit from waiting until a Yes vote is closer to a certainty than possibility, with polls showing strong, continuous support for an independent Scotland. It may be the case, however, that Sturgeon is sceptical of this happening at all before an actual campaign begins, and believes that revisiting the vote will be the most successful way of winning support as previous arguments are revisited and discussed again.


The SNP and other parties backing independence will likely be banking on a continued increase in support during the uncertainty surrounding the Brexit process. Scotland’s Remain vote was comfortably larger than the No vote in percentage terms, and those who voted to stay in the UK and the EU will be a group who the Yes camp are desperate to win the support of.


In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote a select number of polls demonstrated a surge in the Yes vote, however maintaining this has been a challenge for the Yes side, with support to remain in the union often stabilising.


Nevertheless, Sturgeon will also be aware of the benefits she will have in a second referendum compared to the first one. Unlike the No camp, the figures arguing in favour of independence will largely be the same ones who were doing so in 2014, and they will have had time to learn from certain mistakes from that campaign, and will aim to strengthen the arguments for independence.


While supporters of independence may vary in their exact vision of what an independent Scotland should be like, their general goal is a unified one, and they will likely find it easier to cooperate during the campaign than unionist opponents.


Those who back remaining within the UK may be reassured by the polls failing to show consistent support for independence, however they may face a more difficult task than last time.


Unlike in 2014, the ongoing Brexit process means those arguing in favour of the union will also be arguing an economic case which is tinted with a lot of uncertainty, and many of those arguing that case will be people who themselves oppose Brexit.


During the last vote, Scottish Labour were the most prominent party to defend the union, however their decimation since the independence referendum will be a major blow to any future campaign. They will no longer be able to rely on the well-known MPs they once had to make the argument by simple virtue of the fact that almost all of them were unseated in 2015.


Many of their key arguments since 2014 have been compromised as well. The Better Together campaign put out a now infamous tweet shortly before the vote in which they stated that the best way to secure future EU membership for Scotland was through voting against independence.


Additionally, the argument that Scotland could avoid being subjected to a Conservative government it did not vote for by opting for Labour instead has been torn apart as Scottish Labour continue to sink to record low figures, and the UK-wide party find themselves with a deeply unpopular leader who is incredibly unlikely to ever win a General Election.


As a result of Scottish Labour’s diminished credibility, the Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson would perhaps be the most likely figurehead for any pro-union campaign. Davidson is one of the few Scottish unionist figures who have improved their position since 2014, and she is perceived to be a strong political talent after leading her party to a second placed position in last year’s Holyrood elections.


Nevertheless, Davidson will also face problems of her own. A key voice for Remain in last year’s Brexit vote, she may struggle to present a positive case for Scotland’s continuing membership of the UK outside of the EU when she herself was in favour of it.


Additionally, while the Scottish Conservatives have seen a surge in support under Davidson’s leadership, it is important to remember that they lag a long way behind the SNP, and are still disliked by considerable portions of the country. It is likely that Davidson’s increase in the Scottish vote share has come from winning over dedicated unionists who feel that Scottish Labour have softened their stance, and such people will already be against independence.


As a result, any pro-union campaign is likely to be a lot more divided and fractured than it was in 2014, and will have the disadvantage of being unsure what union it is they’re actually arguing for.


In spite of this though, the pro-union side will perhaps still have the benefit of arguing for the status quo, even if it is likely to be a highly altered status quo. As Article 50 is triggered and the Brexit process advances, they will aim to argue that taking Scotland out of the UK would only result in even more uncertainty.


Ultimately both sides will face a tough task if permission for a second independence referendum is granted, and depending on the impact of Brexit and the success of either campaign, the vote could quite easily swing in either direction.



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