Scotland’s New Call for an Independence Referendum, Explained

The United Kingdom is currently facing its biggest challenge since the completion of Brexit. In the past year, there have been ongoing, public and controversial conversations about the future of Scotland. 

The Scottish Parliament is currently going through the process of drafting legislation regarding a new referendum on Scottish independence. If the referendum proceeds, it will be the second Scottish referendum within the past decade, following one that took place in September 2014 during which 55.3% of Scottish voters opted to stay in the UK.

How does a referendum work?

Nearly seven years ago, Scotland was led by the pro-independence Scottish National Party, which had a majority in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP believed that independence would grant Scotland more peace, prosperity and freedom — especially over its economy and military. 

In order to initiate an independence referendum, the Scottish Parliament needed to gain permission from the British government, and then solidify the referendum into law. This is because the Scotland Act of 1998 disallows the Scottish Parliament from unilaterally passing a bill when its provisions include matters reserved to the British government such as “the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England.”

In October 2012, the Scottish Parliament signed the Edinburgh Agreement with the UK to lay the foundations of the referendum. Then Scotland passed the referendum legislation in the Parliament to settle the details, including the date of the referendum and the wording of the question. 

In 2014, when the referendum occurred, all Scottish residents who were over age 16 were eligible to vote “yes” or “no” to the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” However, the result of the referendum eventually prevented Scotland from claiming its independence, with 44.7% of Scots voting to leave the UK and 55.3% voting to stay. This result was thought to have ended the dispute over Scottish sovereignty, with the British prime minister at the time, David Cameron, claiming that the “debate has been settled for a generation.”

Yet, it didn’t take long for calls for Scottish independence to resurface. 

Following the UK’s exit from the European Union in 2020, Scotland once again expressed a strong intention to leave the UK. The distancing between the UK and the EU is a driving force behind the new Scottish referendum. Unlike England, which left the EU to pursue unilateralism, Scotland has always been a proponent of the EU and wants to keep its role in the political union. The results from the 2016 Brexit referendum support this, with 62 percent of Scottish voters electing to remain in the EU. This figure is the highest compared to all other regions in England, Welsh, and Northern Ireland, and drastically contrasts from all other English regions with the exception of London. 

Why is Scotland Calling for a second referendum?

The Scottish government believes that “Scotland will be worse off outside the EU” in aspects including trade, economy, security, and immigration. 

For instance, after Brexit, Scottish businesses will lose full access to the EU’s Single Market, which is also known as an internal market without trade barriers. This allows the EU members to move people, goods, services, and money around freely. If a product is able to be sold in an EU country, it can also be sold among other EU members. Brexit also prevents Scotland from participating in the EU’s Customs Union, which, according to the European Commission, enables “countries to apply a uniform system for handling the import, export and transit of goods and implement a common set of rules.” Without involvement in these, British goods that enter the EU will face extra customs and border paperwork, causing delays and resulting in an extra trading costs estimated at around £7 billion annually. 

Additionally, Scotland will lose EU program funding for agriculture, fishing, and rural development. Since 2014, the EU has provided £5.6 billion to related programs in Scotland. 

Moreover, Scottish people will face more restrictions when working, studying, or travelling to EU countries. Domestically, the number of EU migrants to Scotland may drop by 50%, which will also have a significant impact on sectors that rely on immigrant labor. The Scottish government projects that leaving the EU will lower Scotland’s gross domestic product by approximately 6.1% by 2030. 

The current leading party in the Scottish Parliament is also pushing for Scottish independence. Although its effort to create an independent Scotland failed in 2014, the SNP continues to advocate for the independence of Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP party leader and the First Minister of Scotland (leader of the Scottish devolved government), declared that a different and better future for Scotland “is only open to us with independence.” The SNP currently has 61 out of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, and it may hold a new independent referendum if it were to win a greater majority seats during the election this May. Statistics from February 25 show that 52% of survey respondents planned to vote for the SNP and another 52% said they would vote ‘Yes’ for a Scottish independence referendum. 

However, the SNP is facing an internal challenge, as there is an ongoing political dispute between Sturgeon and Deputy Party Leader Alex Salmond, which would eventually affect the party leadership and the outcome of the election. 

What’s the impact of independence?

A 2019 publication from the Scottish Parliament explains that independence ensures “Scotland’s choices will determine Scotland’s future.” Analysis from Foreign Policy and Center for Strategic and International Studies indicates that if Scotland is able to have its independence, it may gain the ability to make independent decisions on its economy, defence, natural resources, national infrastructure and raise its global status. Scotland may elect to strengthen its military by taking part in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It also might seek to recover from its economic losses by rejoining the EU. 

However, a report from the London School of Economics found that EU membership does not necessarily guarantee a boost to the Scottish economy. The report indicates that Scotland’s trade figure with the UK is four times greater than its trade with the EU, and rejoining the EU will carry the cost of creating a trade border between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Since 61% of Scottish exports go to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, Scotland’s break from the UK will likely create financial losses.

London is seemingly feeling the pressure. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently took a trip to Scotland in order to persuade the Scots to remain in the UK. His willingness to endure press scrutiny for the trip underscores the degree to which an impending referendum is unsettling for Downing Street and bids for UK unity.

How is the UK responding?

The current government of the UK is against a second Scottish referendum, and has started to appeal to the Scottish people using the government’s financial power

The government has bypassed the Scottish Parliament to provide direct funding to local communities, infrastructure and projects. Because the previous first minister of Scotland has made a promise that the independence referendum is something that happens “once in a generation,” Johnson said that the SNP should not break this promise and should stop a second referendum from taking place. 

In a letter he wrote to Sturgeon in January 2020, Johnson wrote that, “the UK government will continue to uphold the democratic decision of the Scottish people and the promise that you made them. For that reason, I cannot agree to any request for a transfer of power that would lead to further independence referendums.”

Overall, it’s difficult to determine which of the two sides has the greater chance of deciding the fate of the UK and the people living within it. The issue itself reflects years of conflicts and clashes between Scotland and England — many historical and many present and political.

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Alicia Liu

Xiao Alicia Liu is a freshman currently majoring in Communication and minoring in International Relations. Alicia hails from China and attended high school in the United States, where she took French as her third language. At USC, Alicia is a staff writer at Daily Trojan and a member of the Trojan Debate Team. Her areas of interest include foreign policy, intercultural relations, and international organizations. She also hopes to combine her academic interests by studying media impacts on a global scale.
liualici@usc.edu