Towards a constitutional crisis: Scotland and Britain after the general election

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Michael Keating says choppy waters lie ahead for both defending and defeating the Union

Once again, Scotland and England have diverged sharply in their electoral choices. Campaigns in both countries focused on Brexit but in Scotland equal prominence was given to the prospect of a second referendum on independence.

In 2014, Scots voted by 55% to remain in the UK after a campaign in which both sides shared the wish to stay in the EU. Two years later, Scotland voted by 62% to remain in the EU. The ‘leave’ vote in England and Wales, however, meant that Scotland was constitutionally obliged to follow. The initial response of the SNP was to suggest a new independence referendum in order to remain in Europe. That gambit backfired as some 30% of pro-independence voters had backed Leave. In fact, in spite of the logic of the SNP argument – that Europe makes independence easier – most electors had never made the connection. Analysis by the British Election Study showed that, cross-tabulating the ‘yes’/’no’ vote in 2014 and the ‘leave’/’remain’ vote in 2016, there was no majority for any combination. Nor were most Scots ready for yet a third constitutional referendum after the turbulence of 2014 and 2016.

On the back of this, the Scottish Conservative made a remarkable, if modest, revival in the 2017 general election, winning 13 seats out of 59. Taken with the Scottish elections of 2016, this made the Conservatives Scotland’s second party, overtaking Labour. The basis of their campaign was simple – no to a second referendum. Accusing the SNP of being obsessed with independence, the Scottish Conservatives talked of almost nothing else. Since 2017, matters have begun to change. The SNP, unlike the British Labour Party, made little effort to straddle the ‘leave’/’remain’ divide and seems to have lost many of its ‘leave’ voters to the Conservatives or (initially) UKIP/the Brexit party. Instead, it doubled down on a strategy of ‘remain’ (and a second Brexit referendum) and independence (through another referendum). The Scottish Conservatives doubled down on a strategy of ‘no’ to an independence referendum and ‘yes’ to Brexit. Scottish Labour lined up behind a second Brexit referendum but the electors do not seem to have noticed, given Jeremy Corbyn’s vacillation on the matter. Labour were equally unclear on a second independence vote.

The outcome was a big win for the SNP, which gained 45% of votes and 48 seats, while the Conservatives fell to 25%, losing seven of their thirteen seats. The SNP immediately demanded an independence referendum for 2020. This is unlikely. First, a new referendum would require longer to prepare. Second, there is no guarantee of victory. Polls in recent months have shown support for independence at around 50%. In contrast to 2016, polls have shown a small majority of ‘remain’ voters supporting independence. It may be that Scots are sorting themselves into ‘independence’/’remain’ and ‘union’/’leave’ camps but the alignment is far from perfect.

Third, there is the need for Westminster’s consent for a referendum. The Scottish Government has made it clear that it has no desire to follow the Catalan route of a unilateral referendum. The Westminster Government would not, unlike the Spanish one, send the police in to stop people voting but the unionist side could simply boycott and ignore the whole thing. The Scottish Parliament could pass a referendum bill and wait for the Westminster government to take it to the Supreme Court. There, the Scottish Government could present historical arguments about the Union, say that the referendum was only consultative or hope that the Court would look to the more permissive precedent of the Supreme Court of Canada some years ago. Given the attitude of the British Supreme Court to the constitution, however, it is difficult to see this succeeding.

This means that the issue will be settled politically. Nobody wants to be the Prime Minister who lost Scotland or presided over the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Public opinion in England, however, may be less rigid. Surveys have shown that almost half of English voters are content to leave the matter to the Scots, with many of the rest having no opinion. There appears to be little appetite for coercing Scotland, should Scotland really want to leave. Polls have even shown a majority of ‘leave’ voters in England prepared to lose both Scotland and Northern Ireland if that is the price of Brexit. Around a fifth of English voters would actually like Scotland to leave Britain.

The Johnson Government is now set on a hard Brexit, having abandoned the aim of harmonising regulations with Europe. It was quick to take worker protection provisions out of the new withdrawal bill. Instead, its new working-class voters are offered mega-investment projects of the sort that usually end up absorbing huge amounts of cash. City and region deals, along with the proposed Shared Prosperity Fund, will steer headline-grabbing sums to Scotland and Wales but which, in the bigger order of things, are small beer. The biggest imbalance in the spatial economy, the uncontrolled growth of London, is unlikely to be restrained.

All of this could increase support for independence but three issues stand in the way. With Scotland in and England and Wales out of the European market, there would be a hard border between them. The issue of the currency is still unresolved. After the Sustainable Growth Commission, the SNP seem to have abandoned the ‘Nordic’ model of small state prosperity in favour of economic orthodoxy. Getting support for independence convincingly over the 50% mark is still a hard task.

Michael Keating is Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change

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