In the last week, Nicola Sturgeon confirmed the thoughts of many in Britain as she called for a second Scottish Independence Referendum before Spring 2019. Many expected this to happen, as the Brexit result has caused the debate to resurface after Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. Mrs May has responded to the First Minister by ruling out any referendum before Brexit negotiations have drawn to a close as “now is not the time” and the uncertainty caused by a referendum would only have a negative impact on negotiations with the EU.
It is difficult to disagree with the Prime Minister in that yet another referendum would only cause more uncertainty in what is already a time of doubt for Britain. Theresa May is right in saying that, over the next two years, the government needs to put all their efforts into negotiating with the EU and having to campaign in yet another referendum is just an unnecessary distraction. However, the situation is more complex than it seems as the Prime Minister cannot realistically just block the referendum without mobilising even more support for Scottish Independence. A recent poll suggests that 46% of Scots are currently in favour of independence, which is an increase on the 38% who voted to remain part of the UK in the last referendum in 2014. It is widely believed that the EU referendum is the dealbreaker for causing so many more people to change their minds since then.
The Prime Minister will have to play this situation very carefully as she will need to do her best to avoid a referendum or, if she is forced to trigger one, ensure that Scotland voted to remain in the UK. On top of this, she now has yet another problem to deal with when she is already trying to negotiate various trade deals with Europe and other powers around the world. Outright denying the SNP a referendum can, in my view, only make the situation worse because it will just make the clamour for Scottish Independence even louder from those who support it and could make people who are currently undecided over the issue turn against the government if they get the feeling that Scottish rights really are being encroached upon. Therefore I feel some sort of referendum is inevitable if the government is to try and keep the United Kingdom united.
For me, there are three paths the Prime Minister might take to settle the issue for the meantime. I feel it is important for the debacle to be over with as soon as possible so that everybody knows exactly what the situation will be for Britain when they approach negotiations. The Prime Minister and her counterparts must know for sure that Scotland either is or isn’t going to be part of the UK going forward so that a deal can be reached on those terms that (hopefully) will be favourable for all parties. The only hope for Westminster is to find a way of holding a referendum and making sure that the result sees Scotland stay in the UK, thus making Britain look as strong and united as possible to the rest of the world. I can see three ways of doing this:
The first option I can see is a very risky one and, in truth, it would be too big a gamble on May’s part as, although it would give her the result she wants, it would anger a large proportion of Scots into becoming committed nationalists. This plan would involve Mrs May holding a referendum for Scottish Independence, but allowing the whole of the UK to vote. Scottish voted would, of course, be worth more than votes from the rest of the UK – so a Scottish vote might count be equal to five votes from around the UK – but I fear Scotland would not take too kindly to England , Wales, and Northern Ireland have any say whatsoever in their future. Scotland’s population of just over 5 million would almost certainly end up staying in the UK because their population of over 60 million would be sure to result in an overwhelming ‘no’ result to independence. However, this would only intensify the debate because having the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland deciding Scotland’s status would hardly calm those who claim that Scotland is ruled from Westminster. If Mrs May were to take this path I fear that she would only increase uncertainty and shorten the odds on Scottish Independence in the coming years.
The second option I can see would also be very unpopular with Scottish nationalists. This would see Mrs May seemingly giving in to Nicola Sturgeon’s calls for a referendum, but exercising the government’s power to set the required threshold at referendums. The government could say that, for independence to be triggered, an unlikely proportion of the electorate would have to vote for it, which would protect the government from a narrow defeat such as the EU referendum. Theresa May will be very wary of calling a referendum at all after seeing how the Brexit result affected David Cameron’s career with a 52% to 48% outcome, so she would be glad to have the insurance that a high required threshold would bring her. She could say that 65% of Scots had to vote for independence for it to be triggered; something which is very unlikely to happen as the country is so divided at present. However, although this would be less controversial than the previous option, I’m still not sure that the Scottish Parliament would let her get away with it. Nicola Sturgeon has already accused Mrs May of ‘being scared of the will of the people’ so taking steps to protect herself against a narrow defeat would only increase criticism.
The third option – and the one which I would take if I were the Prime Minister – would be to call a straight yes/no referendum with no strings attached, giving Nicola Sturgeon what she wants. The only thing she should insist upon is that the referendum is held as soon as possible. That way, the result will be clear a long time in advance of Brexit negotiations, and voters will be put under pressure to make a decision without having a long lead up of campaigning ahead of the referendum. Polls at the moment suggest that Scotland would not become independent if a referendum was held today, so the government should call a vote as soon as possible so that the SNP has a little time as possible to campaign and try to win over undecided Scots to the independence cause. I also have an inkling that even some of the Scots leaning towards independence might lose their nerve and change their minds if they had to take a split second decision at short notice. Therefore, in my opinion the best avenue for Theresa May to go down would be to grant the SNP a referendum as soon as possible to solve the matter for the near future, and get the vote over with while opinion seems to be in the government’s favour.
Mrs May will need to make a decision over what to do about Scottish Independence very soon, as she was planning to trigger Article 50 in the next few days and so she needs to solve this issue in order to get back to focusing on Brexit negotiations. If she can find a way of keeping Scotland as part of the UK without alienating most of the Scottish people, let alone the SNP themselves, she will have done very well indeed. I have outlined what I would do in the situation but, needless to say, Mrs May has more political experience than I do and hopefully she can solve the problem. However, I would question Nicola Sturgeon’s actions as the timing of her call for a referendum could hardly have come at a worse time for the country, and I feel she could have got this idea across in a way which is far less detrimental to Britain’s prospective Brexit talks.