Generally, political division is not a significant issue in Scotland. Although there are of course a range of political opinions and stances across the country’s voters, the nation has generally voted centre-left during the entirety of its devolved parliament’s existence. Indeed, it is the centre-left Scottish National Party (SNP) which has controlled the country’s legislature for the past 15 years. However, there is one issue which appears to split the nation right down the middle, and is the source of seemingly endless debate: Scottish independence.
At present, it remains unclear if Scottish independence from the United Kingdom will become a reality. In June 2022, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon proposed a second referendum on independence following the initial 2014 referendum, which had resulted in 55% voting ‘No’ to independence. Despite this major loss for the pro-independence movement, Sturgeon’s party, the SNP, remained in power. Crucially, they stated that a second referendum would remain a possibility should there be significant changes in the circumstances of Scotland’s position in the UK.
And significant change there was: in 2016, although 62% of Scottish voters voted to remain in the European Union, the UK voted to leave. This – alongside the cumulation of high-profile scandals involving the UK Conservative government during the COVID-19 pandemic – coincided with a general increase in support for Scottish independence since the 2014 referendum. The SNP thus stated that, if pro-independence parties (namely the SNP themselves and the Scottish Greens) won a majority in the 2021 Scottish parliament election, they would propose a second referendum. Having won this majority alongside the Greens, Sturgeon announced her plans for ‘IndyRef2’ in 2022.
However, tensions between the Scottish government and UK government prevent the process of holding a second referendum from being smooth-sailing. Following Boris Johnson’s rejection of Sturgeon's bid in July 2022, and the continued refusal demonstrated by current Prime Minister Liz Truss, the issue has now been referred to the UK Supreme Court for examination in October. At the time of writing, the outcome is yet to be confirmed – but, regardless, it will certainly not resolve the issue completely. The Scottish government has made it clear that they will not back down in the face of a loss. On the contrary, if they were to win, this does not guarantee that a referendum will take place - although it will apply significant pressure on the UK government to allow it.
So, if the referendum is held in October 2023 – how likely is it that Scotland will make a different decision this time around, and vote to be an independent nation? Again, there is simply no clear-cut answer. The nation is undeniably divided. However, although 55% voted to remain in the UK in 2018, support for independence has largely grown since that point: in fact, it had surpassed 50% in polls around the latter half of Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister.
Common arguments in favour of Scottish independence centre around the fact that Scotland would benefit from making all of its own decisions. Scotland has been ruled by a Conservative government for majority of the last 50 years, despite voting for centre-left parties including the SNP and Labour. Pro-independence campaigners argue that this highlights the fundamental political and ideological differences between Scotland and the UK, which prevent Scotland from being run in a fully democratic manner. They also highlight Scotland’s strong, diversified economy thanks to its many outputs, including oil, shipbuilding, whisky, green energy, and so on.
Also fundamental to this issue – and perhaps most important – is the issue of identity. Many pro-independence campaigners highlight that Scotland has its own unique identity which is distinctive enough from the rest of the UK to justify Scotland’s existence as its own nation. This is reflected, for example, in the aforementioned political differences between Scotland and the UK. Indeed, it can be argued that Scotland cannot realise its full potential as part of a larger nation with which it struggles to identify.
In contrast, common arguments against Scottish independence tend to centre around economics. Anti-independence campaigners argue that Scotland could not go it alone without the financial support of the UK as a whole, and would potentially have to undergo the complicated process of changing its currency to the Euro. They also argue that Scottish independence could harm the nation’s standing in the world, as they would have to negotiate a complex re-entry to the EU, membership of NATO, and a working relationship with potentially vengeful UK government and markets.
Indeed, although recent polls have shown a small shift in favour of independence, this is by no means fixed. Following the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II, polls have shown support for independence dip again: Deltapoll polled 659 Scottish voters on their views on independence following the Queen’s death, and found that 47% would vote against independence, with 42% supporting it. This matches a consistent pattern of fluctuation seen throughout the independence debate, and implies that neither side has a consistently reliable level of support.
Scottish independence is an extremely multifaceted issue. It transcends mere party politics and frivolous debate, and is incredibly important on an economic, political, and personal level to those living here in Scotland. The debate thus rages on, and the electoral battle remains to be fought once more. The future of the nation of Scotland and the unity of the United Kingdom thus remains in limbo – at least for now.