One question dominates when voters vote in the Scottish parliamentary elections today: will they get a new independence referendum? It is only seven years since a majority of Scots rejected independence. But because of the Brexit and the pandemic, the issue has returned as a boomerang.
The outcome of these elections must be the moment of the SNP independence party. The party, which has been running continuously in Scotland since 2007, seems to suffer little from electoral fatigue. Scottish Prime Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is popular among the people and is considered one of the most popular politicians in the UK.
The pandemic has given Sturgeon extra wings. At the beginning of the coronacrisis, she gave daily press conferences, with which she reaped high appreciation. With her calm approach and compassion, she contrasted sharply with the chaotic stunting of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose popularity in Scotland has reached a Thatcherian low.
Corona has thus given SNP an additional argument for independence. But her opponents also think they are strong. The joint British vaccination programme has proved to be a sounding success. Moreover, Sturgeons corona approach has not yielded substantially different results from that of the English southern neighbours.
Will SNP get majority?
There is little doubt that the SNP remains by far the largest in the Scottish Parliament. For months, the party seemed to be heading for an absolute majority, but in recent weeks SNP declined slightly in the polls. The point is tense: according to the most recent polls, the SNP fluctuates around 65 seats, just enough for an absolute majority in the 129 seats parliament.
The parties who are in favour of preserving the British Union invariably sought to focus the campaign on other issues. “A new referendum will only lead to more divisions,” says Malcolm Johnstone, who sits on behalf of the Conservative Party on the city council of the Scottish border region Dumfries and Galloway. “At the moment, we need a recovery plan, not a referendum. Together we stand stronger.”
Referendum on referendum
However, as much as they wish to talk about other issues, these Scottish elections have become a referendum on a referendum. The debate runs along the same lines as it was seven years ago. The Scottish nationalists of the SNP, a centre-left party, like to compare Scotland with small, progressive nations like Denmark or Sweden. They want a country with a broad social safety net, stronger employee rights, the abolition of tuition fees and free seniors care. In their view, the Scots are radically different from the free market thinkers in conservative England.
The opponents of independence point to the many taxpayers money that has been flowing from the British treasury to Scotland for decades. The Scots receive more financial support per capita from London than the rest of the country. According to the unionists, Scotland is too small to stand financially on its own two feet.
In 2014, 55 percent of Scottish voters rejected independence. The SNP then promised that there would certainly not be a new referendum in a generation. The unionists demand that the nationalists keep that promise, but according to SNP, the British Parliament in London itself broke a number of promises.
In the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, the three major unionist parties (Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats) solemnly signed The Vow. In doing so, she promised Scotland more autonomy if it rejected independence. According to the SNP, none of that promise has come to pass.
Error of 2014 we do not repeat.
But the main game changer is, of course, the Brexit. In 2014, Conservative leader David Cameron said that it was by no means certain that the European Union would accept an independent Scotland as a member. Only as part of the United Kingdom did the Scots guarantee that they could stay within the EU.
The 2016 Brexit referendum broke that argument. The United Kingdom left the European Union, while a large majority of Scots voted against Brexit. A new independence referendum gives Scotland the opportunity to rejoin the EU.
“ Brexit has changed everything. Its a disaster for Scotland,” says Alistair Rennie of the Scottish Independence Movement. “Many Scots voted against independence in 2014 only because they wanted to remain in the EU. We will not make that mistake again.”