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The Not-So-United Kingdom is Facing Calls for Scottish Independence

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This article was written prior to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation on February 15, 2023. 

The so-called United Kingdom is facing serious disunity. Since June, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been calling for a new referendum on Scottish independence. These calls are indicative of a wider growth in vocal Scottish nationalism that marks a tipping point in the increasingly tense divide between the Scottish government at Holyrood and the British government at Westminster. As the English-dominated Parliament continues to fracture, this might just be the perfect time for Scotland to finally divorce itself from its southern neighbor. 

While the first referendum in 2014 saw 55 percent of Scots voting in favor of remaining in the United Kingdom, that sentiment has dwindled over the past decade, now hovering just around 50 percent in recent polls. After years of controversial Brexit policies and mismanagement of the economy following Covid-19 and the subsequent recession, the generally more left-leaning Scotland has grown increasingly fed up with the Conservative-controlled Parliament. With no adjustment to these policies in sight, it feels like independence truly might be the only viable option to protect increasingly disparate Scottish interests.

Brexit alone was a volatile process when it was finally initiated in early 2020—nearly four tumultuous years after a majority of UK citizens voted to leave the European Union. By that time, Prime Minister Theresa May had already resigned over her failure to unify Parliament (or even her own Conservative Party) and deliver Brexit in her three years at the helm. The onset of a pandemic that wholly disrupted global trade and finances mere weeks after Brexit commenced only further compounded the economic risks of hardening trade barriers with the rest of Europe. Now, the resulting global recession has been hitting Great Britain especially severely, with inflation soaring as food prices grow at rates not seen for nearly 40 years, while consumer spending continues to decrease. 

Further contributing to the mayhem, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to resign after he illegally threw parties in defiance of pandemic restrictions, lied about his knowledge of a government minister who allegedly groped two men, and continually failed to find a solution to increasing economic turmoil. Then, Liz Truss’s attempts to remedy the economy by increasing government spending and lowering taxes on the wealthy simply exacerbated the issue—she resigned after just six weeks in office. 

The instability and ineptitude of the last few months in Parliament have led to massive amounts of political and social unrest across the archipelago. With inflation at a 40-year high of 10.1 percent, hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers went on strike in August 2022 to demand better pay to compensate for higher costs of living. It is important to note that the ruling Conservative Party in support of Brexit is widely unpopular in Scotland, where the pro-EU Scottish National Party retains most Scottish seats in Parliament, and has controlled the Scottish Parliament since 2007. As the economy only continues to suffer post-Brexit, many Scots are becoming more fervent in their demands to leave the UK and rejoin the EU. Even if newly elected Prime Minister Rishi Sunak can miraculously reverse Britain’s steep economic decline, the voracity of Scottish calls for independence is unlikely to disappear, especially if he continues to oppose a new referendum.

Scottish nationalism is not a new phenomenon, and fights for independence in the region have existed nearly as long as people have inhabited the British Isles. Over the centuries, battles against Roman invaders eventually turned into wars against the English before the creation of the United Kingdom. Now, Scotland has spent decades resurrecting support for independence and using diplomatic measures in an effort to reclaim the independence they lost in 1707 with the Acts of Union. Scotland originally agreed to a union with England so they might benefit from the growing English economy that was beginning to establish overseas territories. Now that England poses an economic burden, rather than a benefit, many Scots are seeing little reason to remain united. Today, the Acts of Union continue to frame modern issues surrounding Scottish independence, including the process by which a referendum can be held. 

While the 1998 Scotland Act granted moderate power to the newly-created Scottish Parliament, all matters concerning the Union remain in Westminster’s hands. This means that any legitimate referendum on Scottish independence would have to be approved by Parliament before it could be passed onto Scottish leadership at Holyrood. The 2014 referendum was delivered in this manner, with the caveat, however, that it was a once-in-a-generation event. This colloquial time constraint is the source of the current conflict over whether a 2023 vote can properly take place, as all three Prime Ministers since June have vehemently opposed it, citing the 2014 referendum as settling the issue for the next few decades.

Since the Brexit vote in 2016, Nicola Sturgeon has claimed that leaving the EU is so consequential for British economics and international relations that it necessitates a new Scottish referendum, regardless of the fact that less than a decade has passed since the 2014 referendum. This is because the 2014 vote was conducted under the assumption that remaining in the UK would protect Scottish EU membership, and an independent Scotland would likely have been barred from joining. This is why many Scots voted against Brexit, but their population of 5.5 million was simply too small to make much of an impact compared to that of the rest of the UK’s 62.5 million. Scotland remains stuck in a power imbalance that continues to give England the upper hand in national policy making. Now, the decision over whether or not Scotland can host a new referendum rests with the UK Supreme Court, which will not make a decision for months. 

Should the Supreme Court side with the British government, Sturgeon plans to run the 2024 UK general elections with the SNP’s platform strictly limited to independence, as a de facto referendum. No matter what the Supreme Court decides, Scottish independence will be on the ballot in some form. The larger question, then, is whether it should be. British leaders in Parliament continue to criticize the referendum by saying economic recovery is better together, with Britain unified. British leaders are clearly worried that Scottish independence would severely delegitimize an already floundering Parliament. This claim, however, feels contradictory to the very principles of Brexit, which prioritized national interests over the common good of regional communities outside of England. If Britain was allowed to skirt their responsibilities toward the larger European community for domestic reasons, Scotland should not be denied that same opportunity.

After all the current controversies surrounding the Conservative Party, no one in Scotland is really unifying against independence in the way that the Better Together coalition did back in 2014. Additionally, distrust and disillusionment in Parliament is soaring, which bodes well for Scottish nationalists who seek to distance themselves from Westminster. The political turmoil throughout the nation, though, does pose a few risks for pro-independence Scots. First, Scotland is also dealing with economic issues related to high living costs of living and affordable housing. Second, Scotland is still heavily intertwined with the rest of Great Britain, both socially and economically. The bottom line, however, is that Scotland cannot swim out of this murky water with a far heavier England attached to their hip, weighing them down to the ocean floor. 

In principle, it is contradictory for the UK to hold a vote on whether or not to leave the EU when they felt it was no longer serving them, and then deny Scotland the exact same opportunity to leave the UK. What this signals more than anything is that Brexit was not a British decision, but an English one. In this regard, a push for British nationalism by declaring economic independence from the EU has backfired into feeding Scottish nationalist sentiments. It seems only right that Scotland is granted the opportunity to vote for secession and back out of an organization they feel no longer serves them.