How British empire demise may point to way ahead in Scottish independence referendum stand-off

Historic precedents from the demise of the British empire may point to a more pragmatic approach from the UK Government over demands for an independence referendum, it has been suggested.
A recent rally for independence in Glasgow, Scotland.A recent rally for independence in Glasgow, Scotland.
A recent rally for independence in Glasgow, Scotland.

The pressure is likely to build on Boris Johnson to come to the negotiating table if the SNP win a majority of seats and the popular vote in next May’s Scottish Parliament election as most polls suggest is likely, according to political experts.

But, with five months to go until polling day, there are also warnings the dominant position enjoyed by Nicola Sturgeon in Scots public opinion could shift quickly over the course of an election campaign, as opposition parties gain more exposure.

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The latest poll last week put the SNP on 55% of voting intentions for next May when undecided voters are removed - enough to give Ms Sturgeon a comfortable majority next year. The First Minister's insistence that she will use this as a mandate for a second referendum on independence will increase the pressure on Boris Johnson to agree to a repeat of the 2014 vote on leaving the UK, according to Dr Heinz Brandenburg, Senior Lecturer in the School of Government & Public Policy at Strathclyde University.

"If there's an SNP majority and with the Greens perhaps likely to win more seats through the list vote, it could be quite a big majority for pro-independence parties,” he said.

"I think that creates more pressure on Johnson to start negotiating some ways towards a referendum.

"He doesn't face an election for another four years so he doesn't really have to do anything, but the pressure will build.

"If there's a majority for a party, that's treated as a mandate for what they set out. It becomes very difficult to say that a referendum is not what people in Scotland want."

And the approach adopted with former colonial nations of the British empire which secured independence, including many parts of Africa in the 1960s, may point to a more pragmatic approach, according to Dr Elliot Bulmer, Politics lecturer at University of Dundee.

"Traditionally, in most cases where countries have sought independence from the UK, which many countries have done, a majority in the legislature has been sufficient for the British Government to recognise that as a political mandate and to then commence independence negotiations," he said.

"Particularly where the pro-independence parties have been explicit about that - and have explicitly tried to use the election to obtain a mandate for independence."

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Consistent polls throughout this year suggest a majority of Scots now support independence.

But power over the constitution remains "reserved" to Westminster in the UK and most experts believe that Boris Johnson would have to agree to a transfer of power, through a so called section 30 order, for a repeat of the 2014 vote to take place. However this has never been tested in court and Ms Sturgeon has not ruled out the prospect of a legal challenge if the Tory leader refuses to agree to a referendum – even with another SNP majority next year.

Professor Ailsa Henderson, a voting and elections expert at Edinburgh University, said the prospect of the SNP winning over 50% of the popular vote in next year's election - so far unprecedented in the short history of devolution - would enhance the case for a referendum.

"The argument would be that democratic events matter and if you get more than 50% in a democratic event that matters," she added.

"So just as the referendum for Brexit was not legally binding, it was seen to be politically binding.

"Nicola Sturgeon could similarly claim that she has that politically binding mandate from a majority win.

"And that would probably be easier for her to make that claim if they earned more than 50% of the vote rather than just 50% of the seats.

The First Minister's dominance of the airwaves during the Covid pandemic has helped drive the SNP's polling success. Discord in the opposition parties have also been a factor with the Tories having changed leader this year, although new man Douglas Ross is an MP and not in Holyrood. Labour leader Richard Leonard has been forced to endure public calls to quit from a group of his own MSPs.

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Dr Malcolm Harvey, politics lecturer at Aberdeen University said: "Boris Johnson and the UK Government haven't really had a great pandemic if you want to put it in those terms.

"Publicly the communication hasn't been great and if you look at the polling recently it suggests a very negative view of Boris Johnson with regards to the pandemic.

"By contrast Nicola Sturgeon's numbers on that have held very favourably. If that continues they'll probably stay in the same kind of area, I can't see them getting more of the vote than they're currently sitting on.

"The other parties have been in a very weak position not just over the last Parliament, but since the SNP won power in 2007. If the opposition had a been a bit stronger recently, there's no way the SNP would be polling above 50% and predicted to win a majority."

But the polling dynamic could shift as the election campaign gathers pace, according to Professor Henderson.

"Swings leading up to elections are not all that unusual and in the past too, you've had swings of six and 11 points heading into the election," she added.

"They would need to drop about ten points now not to get a majority, but those kinds of drops and rises are not unheard of. So it's entirely possible from a precedent point of view that that might happen.

"For them to fall another party has to rise and that's where I think the obstacle lies because there's no obvious contender for another party to take a chunk out of the SNP's support.”

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