Nicola Sturgeon proposes a second Scottish referendum. While politically justifiable, this is not the best way forward.
On a characteristically cloudy Monday morning in Edinburgh, the first minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon announced that she would seek a Scottish referendum to exit from the United Kingdom. Less than three years removed from the first referendum, in which Scotland voted to remain in the UK by 55%, the question of national sovereignty returns to the political forefront.
At a press conference in the Bute House, where the first minister resides, Ms Sturgeon confidently explained that the results of last June’s referendum of the UK to exit the European Union provided the mandate for a new vote. While 52% of the UK opted to leave the EU, 62% of Scots voted to remain. Citing the manifesto of her Scottish National Party (SNP), which holds the majority in the Scottish Parliament, Ms. Sturgeon stated that Brexit constitutes a significant and material change from the 2014 vote and a new referendum is necessary.
In this, the first minister is right to call for a referendum, as circumstances have unquestionably changed. Forced to leave a union most Scots prefer, the nation should have the right to reevaluate the partnership with their southern neighbors.
Where Ms. Sturgeon has floundered is in the timing and timetable of her announcement. In the same conference, she announced that a vote is held between autumn 2018 and spring 2019 when the Brexit negotiations will be in the final and most critical stages.
The mother we share
For Theresa May, prime minister of the UK, this announcement could not have come at a worse time. One the eve of triggering Article 50, formally beginning the process of leaving the EU, Ms. May was forced to respond, delaying the start of Brexit for at least another week.
Late Monday, an animated Ms. May responded: “The tunnel vision that the SNP has shown today is deeply regrettable. It sets Scotland on a course for more uncertainty and division, creating huge uncertainty.” She followed by referring to the announcement as a strictly political strategy by the SNP.
To observers of UK politics, it is hard not to see the irony in the prime minister’s comments. It was less than a year ago that Ms. May quietly supported the Remain campaign, doing little to confront the politically charged Leave campaign. While correct in her response, her warnings may fall on deaf ears as she did not give a full-throated effort during the UK referendum in highlighting the overwhelmingly negative estimated results of Brexit.
During a boisterous parliamentary session of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on Wednesday, Ms. May was asked repeatedly by SNP members about a new Scottish referendum and her decision to opt for an exit of the EU single market (an act opposed by many Scots).
Directing her responses at those sporting yellow jackets and cords (the official color of the SNP), Ms. May rebuked calls for a new vote. In an exchange with SNP Deputy Leader Angus Robertson, she chided him for “comparing membership of an organization that we have been a member of for 40 years with our country.” Going further, Ms. May continued: “We have been one country for over 300 years. We have fought together, we have worked together, we have achieved together. Constitutional game playing must not be allowed to break the bonds of our shared history and our future together.”
In light of the arguments and contradictions, the prime minister is correct: Scotland is better off remaining part of the UK than leaving it. The SNP, a separatist group at heart, is misleading its countrymen by saying otherwise. The timetable set by Ms. Sturgeon places undue pressure to resolve Brexit during an already tight window of two years. With Greenland taking roughly seven years to finalize its departure from the European Economic Community, it is hard to believe the UK, a political and economic behemoth in the region, departing in a mere couple. The timetable also provides Scots with little ability to make an informed decision. By the end of 2018 and start of 2019, much uncertainty will exist regarding Brexit and its future ramifications for the UK. These are not empty words, as Scots increasingly believe that there should not be another referendum in the next few years.
Even for a leader with high approval ratings like Ms. Sturgeon, referendums are risky. The first minister need not look further than her European counterparts, where referendums in the UK and Italy led to the self-inflicted downfalls of David Cameron and Matteo Renzi. Ms. Sturgeon would be wise to learn from the past, as referendums can have dire and unpredictable consequences on a political career. She should act more like the citizens she was elected to represent, who currently have little appetite for another vote. Even if one were held, the most recent poll shows only 37% of Scots supporting Scottish independence.
What comes next?
Arguing for departure from the UK may play well politically, but it would have disastrous economic ramifications for the small northern nation. Still reeling from depressed oil prices that affected the previous referendum, Scotland does not have the resources to successfully sustain itself outside the UK. Voting for independence, Scotland would be electing to abandon its main trading partner for the hope of reentering a Union with which it trades comparatively little. This, compounded by the broader disputes that would arise, means there exist many great uncertainties and potentially negative ramifications of a divorce.
Unlike the narrative championed by the SNP, electing to leave the UK does not mean reentry into the EU. An independent Scotland would not be placed ahead of other applicants for membership. Additionally, in countries like Spain, which is dealing with its own separatist groups, Scotland’s admission would likely be voted against.
Even if Scotland could enter the EU, there is no guarantee that its citizens will want to. Recent polls show a rise in Euroskepticism among Scots, particularly amongst the youth. With the Scottish Parliament unanimously lowering the voting age to 16 in 2015, the likelihood of an independence result as well as a vote against reentry to the EU may increase. This, in conjunction with the 38% of Scots who voted to leave the EU in June, could combine for a disastrous result.
Rather than the SNP image of a bright future awaiting an independent Scotland, the green peninsula would likely be poorer and alone. The first minister may be right to hold a Scottish referendum in the future, but she should not do so at the expense of her citizens’ prosperity. Once the ramifications of Brexit and voting to leave the UK are known, then Ms. Sturgeon can consider proposing another referendum. Until then, Scotland should work with Westminster to get the best Brexit deal possible.