When Will The Next Scottish Referendum Be Held?
January 25, 2021
No sooner has Brexit been done and dusted (for the moment, at least), than the political vacuum has been filled by the thorny issue of Scottish independence. The Holyrood elections on May 6 are fast-approaching and recent polls indicate that the Scottish National Party is on course to increase its number of MSP’s from the current 61 to a possible 68, giving the party a majority once more in the Scottish Parliament. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is actively pushing for a second independence referendum, branded as Indyref2, and the SNP manifesto is expected to include the referendum upfront in the list of objectives the party seeks to implement during the next five-year term of the Scottish Parliament.
But the Scottish National Party, the dominant force in Scottish politics for the past fifteen years, operates within the context of the United Kingdom and the UK Conservative government remains strongly opposed to Scottish independence. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has consistently resisted the idea of a further referendum, insisting that the 2014 referendum – which resulted in a 55.5% vote against independence – was a “once in a generation” event.
The Conservatives are trying to push against the tide of Scottish public opinion which has changed markedly in the seven years since the referendum. Scotland was taken out of the European Union against the wishes of the majority of the Scottish people and that has caused much anger. The UK government’s erratic handling of the pandemic has also drawn flak, contrasting unfavourably with the First Minister’s consistent and steady approach. Last, but not least, Boris Johnson is not trusted and remains deeply unpopular in Scotland. Sturgeon claims that the PM “fears the verdict and will of the Scottish people” and it is certain that Johnson will not wish to suffer the fate of his predecessor-but-one David Cameron, who was forced to resign when he lost the Brexit referendum in 2016, a referendum that he had thought would be a shoo-in for remainers.
Anticipating a drubbing in the May elections, the UK government is now trying to head off the SNP and the recent creation of the Union Policy Implementation Committee is seen as the main tool to maintain the Union. The Committee will continue to oppose Indyref2 and will seek to persuade Scottish voters that the benefits of the Union outweigh any perceived disadvantages – with particular emphasis on the benefits of the UK’s climate change and technology agenda. But will this be enough to make a major difference in May? That is doubtful, but perhaps this is the start of a longer-term and more nuanced approach to the issue of independence for Scotland.
Even if the SNP thrash the opposition in the May elections and the UK government is ultimately forced into authorising Indyref2, it can still thwart the SNP’s objective of independence. Instead of the binary choice offered to voters back in 2014, Boris Johnson could insist that a third option be offered, the so-called Devo-max option which devolves more fiscal powers to Scotland. By offering this option to voters, the UK government would seek to dissipate the appeal of the independence option thereby making the SNP’s objective harder to achieve. The UK government could additionally seek to stall the momentum of the SNP by setting up a Royal Commission to conduct a wide-reaching review of the constitution of the United Kingdom, perhaps considering a more federal approach as advocated by former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. And the pandemic may also delay matters; it is by no means certain that the elections will in fact take place on 6 May as scheduled.
So achieving a referendum under its own terms is still a very tricky objective for the Scottish National Party and this is echoed by the betting odds available to those interested punters who fancy a bet on the issue. As yet, there is little activity from bookmakers but Betfair Exchange have a useful market offering odds on when a legal referendum may be held. So, for example, the exchange currently offers Back Odds of 12 for a referendum in 2021, and 3.8 for the year after. The odds for 2023 and 2024 are 6.8 and 3.75 respectively with the odds for a referendum in 2025 or beyond standing at 1.95.
You should note that Betfair is focusing on a legal referendum. It has been mooted that Nicola Sturgeon may choose to hold a referendum without the agreement of the UK government, as the Catalan Parliament did in 2017 without the authority of the Spanish government. As Sturgeon is a lawyer herself, it seems unlikely that she would pursue any route that was unlawful, particularly as it may jeopardise the independence movement in the long term, but it remains a possibility.
A referendum remains the most significant lever Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have to press for an independent Scotland. However, Unionists will continue to resist the idea of Indyref2, and the new Union Policy Implementation Committee is committed to ensuring Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom. Is it undemocratic to refuse to allow the Scottish people their say in their own destiny by denying them a referendum? Yes, quite possibly it is but the UK government will argue that the interests of Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole are best served by the Union. We expect that this intractable chasm between the SNP and the Conservatives will lead to increasingly bitter skirmishes in the future, both at Holyrood and in Westminster.