Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Independence Plan Is Testing the Limits of British Democracy

The Scottish government says it wants a new independence referendum in 2023. But there’s every chance that politicians in London will refuse, leaving the Scottish National Party with a choice between helpless submission and risky defiance.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon heads to Parliament, June 30, 2022. (Ken Jack / Getty Images)

In 2014, the people of Scotland rejected the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) pitch to establish an independent Scottish state, separate and distinct from the ailing constitutional architecture of the United Kingdom, by a margin of 55 to 45 percent. For the past eight years, nationalist politicians have sought ways to reverse that decision — or rather, have it comprehensively reconsidered by the country’s electorate.

On Tuesday, June 28, SNP leader and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon set out the latest phase of her party’s push for independence at Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national legislature in Edinburgh.

If the UK government won’t consent to a fresh vote, Sturgeon said, then the British Supreme Court in London should rule on the extent of Holyrood’s authority. Either the Scottish Parliament has the power to stage a consultative referendum without the consent of English MPs at Westminster or it doesn’t.

In the event of a judgment favorable to Holyrood, Sturgeon announced, a new ballot on the breakup of Britain will be held in just under eighteen months’ time, on October 19, 2023. If, however, the judges conclude that sovereignty in the British system ultimately lies with Westminster, then the next UK general election, likely to take place in 2024, will become in Scotland a de facto poll on the dissolution of the union.

Testing the Union

All of this may sound obliquely technical. In fact, Sturgeon’s announcement was dramatic and escalatory. The UK is meant to be an equal union of nations, not a mechanism for English control of the Celtic peripheries. But if one of those nations is permanently barred from exiting that union by its larger, more politically dominant neighbor, the principle of consent does not meaningfully apply.

Britain, Sturgeon argued last week, must decide whether or not it is a truly democratic country. Over the coming months, Scotland is going to act as the staging ground for that decision.

Sturgeon’s move has brought the politics of Scottish independence back into focus after a period of retrenchment. Last year, the SNP and its partners, the left-leaning Scottish Greens, won a combined majority in the Scottish Parliament. Central to the success of this separatist alliance was a pledge to let Scots decide for themselves how they wanted to be governed: by Boris Johnson’s Brexit-obsessed Conservative administration in London or by a more liberal coalition of forces in Holyrood, committed to securing Scotland’s independent reentry into the European Union?

Yet in the aftermath of the 2021 Scottish election, Sturgeon seemed to drag her feet. Preparations for a renewed tilt at independence had to wait until after the COVID-19 crisis had dissipated, she told her restive nationalist base. Some SNP activists saw this as a delaying tactic, indicative of a party leadership, now fifteen years into power at Holyrood, that had grown too attached to the perks of devolutionary rule.

But with her June 28 statement, Sturgeon has raised the stakes. From here on out, everything the SNP does will be viewed through the prism of the national question and every new Scottish government policy will be seen as a preparatory gesture for the constitutional confrontations to come.

The response from the Conservatives has been predictably defensive: according to the Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, Sturgeon has abandoned her domestic policy obligations in favor of a doomed attempt to fracture British unity. The Labour Party, which in the 1980s and ’90s championed Scotland’s democratic interests in the face of Thatcherite obstructionism, fell meekly into line with its unionist counterpart. Its leadership similarly accusing the first minister of pursuing her independence “obsession” at the expense of a beleaguered and neglected Scottish public sector.

Prospects for Independence

There are considerable risks associated with Sturgeon’s bid to force a referendum out of Britain’s recalcitrant political and legal establishment. The first and most obvious is that the SNP isn’t ready to fight another referendum campaign and would stand a decent chance of losing.

The single biggest flaw in the SNP’s prospectus for independence is economic. Beyond token rhetorical nods toward “sustainability” and the “wellbeing economy,” the party’s strategists act as though the 2008 financial crisis didn’t happen. Under its current proposals, an independent Scottish state would lash itself to the UK’s existing regulatory and financial frameworks, leaving Scotland dependent, as it is now, on Britain’s highly unstable banking system as a primary motor of growth.

Worse yet, the SNP wants Scotland to “sterlingize” after it exits the UK, meaning that Scots would forgo the political advantages of an independent Scottish central bank and currency and continue spending and saving in British pounds sterling. As the economics commentator Laurie Macfarlane has pointed out, such an arrangement would, on one hand, outsource Scotland’s monetary policy to the Bank of England — at this hypothetical juncture, the governing financial institution of an entirely foreign state — and, on the other, leave the nascent Scottish economy wide open to speculative attacks.

As Macfarlane wrote in 2020:

Under sterlingisation, Scottish banks would no longer have access to Bank of England liquidity facilities, so could experience regular runs, and fiscal policy would be constrained by the terms set by investors willing to lend sterling. If the point of independence is to gain more control, this is a strange way of going about it.

The other major challenge the SNP faces is Europe. Sturgeon is a staunch Europhile. Indeed, Brexit — opposed in 2016 by 62 percent of Scottish voters — forms the centerpiece of her party’s rationale for a second independence referendum. The country Scotland chose not to leave in 2014 no longer exists, Sturgeon has argued, because England’s subsequent decision to ditch the EU amounted to a “material change” in the fabric of British politics.

However, rejoining the EU as an independent state — the lodestar of Sturgeon’s vision for Scotland — has the potential to be onerous for Edinburgh. England is by far Scotland’s largest and most important trading partner, comfortably outstripping the European single market as the main destination for Scottish exports. Swapping the old union with England, which now sits outside the mainstream of European trading regulations, for a revived relationship with Brussels could result in custom and tariff checks along the Anglo-Scottish border — checks that could end up generating serious economic disruption for Scottish business.

A report by a team of economists at the London School of Economics concluded in 2021:

The costs of independence to the Scottish economy are likely to be two or three times larger than the costs of Brexit, and re-joining the EU following independence would do little to mitigate these costs. From a trade perspective, independence would leave Scotland considerably poorer than staying in the United Kingdom.

Buying Time

Sturgeon has promised to address each of these issues systematically in a series of Scottish government discussion papers to be published over the next twelve months. The first such paper, released earlier this summer, made an anemic case for Scotland as an attractive investment location for global capital and repeatedly held up Ireland — which runs one of the most deregulated economies in the EU — as a model for Scotland’s economic future.

In reality, Sturgeon is struggling now to explain the logistics of Scottish independence because, in the years after the 2014 referendum, she was more concerned with consolidating the SNP’s electoral gains and centralizing the party’s sprawling membership base than she was in building a credible, contemporary account of self-government and how it would benefit the people of Scotland.

Sturgeon would argue that two successive crises, Brexit and COVID-19, both of which had to be resolved before the hard work of nation-building could begin, have obscured Scotland’s route map to independence. But it is as least as accurate to say that the first minister’s political talents lie in managing Scotland’s institutions rather than transforming them, and that the social upheaval associated with constitutional change may not, in fact, look all that appealing to someone with her technocratic and borderline conservative ideological instincts.

It is for these reasons that Sturgeon has sought to reframe the debate over independence in the broadest and most abstract democratic terms possible. Sturgeon wants Scottish voters to interrogate the legitimacy of English Conservative — and British legal — rule in Scotland. Indeed, a decision by the UK Supreme Court that affirmed Westminster’s right to permanently block a second independence referendum would give Sturgeon the political raw material she needs to defeat the unionist parties at the next British election and extend the SNP’s near hegemonic control of the Scottish electoral landscape indefinitely.

Sturgeon has said that the SNP would need to win a majority of Scottish votes at that election in order for independence to occur. But she has notably stopped short of saying that such a victory would instantly trigger the breakup of the British state. More likely, the SNP would present its election win as an irresistible mandate from the Scottish public to start independence negotiations with the UK government.

Homage to Catalonia?

If the UK government still refused to negotiate, as it almost certainly would, the SNP would then claim that English indifference has expunged Scottish democracy. The resulting standoff would look remarkably like the situation Scotland currently finds itself in, with the SNP-Green coalition in Edinburgh repeatedly asserting Scotland’s right to decide its own constitutional status and the Conservative authorities in London denying those assertions on largely procedural grounds.

The question at that point will be how far Sturgeon is prepared to take her commitment to Scottish self-determination. The appearance of seriousness is crucial to the SNP. Over the past fifteen years, and particularly since Brexit, the party has invested huge amounts of time in cultivating Scotland’s diplomatic links to Europe and the United States. The hope among nationalist strategists is that the reservoir of international goodwill that they claim to have built up will translate into tacit support, first for Scotland’s departure from a broken and discredited UK and second for Scotland’s subsequent seamless accession into the EU.

The SNP’s decision to back NATO membership in 2012, and its vocal support for the nuclear-armed alliance since then, have been two of the most visible (and internally contentious) indicators of this trend. But a unilateral, Catalan-style declaration of independence, contested by London and rejected by just under half the Scottish electorate, would quickly undercut all the party’s judicious, behind-the-scenes softening-up efforts.

Despite the elevated rhetoric emanating this week from Bute House, the first minister’s official Edinburgh residence, that prospect makes any attempt to wrench Scotland out of the UK extralegally under Sturgeon’s leadership highly unlikely. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that her Supreme Court gamble will be a waste of time. Scotland is soon going to discover the limits of British constitutional democracy.