Watching Scotland: What Is Driving Independence?

The last Watching Scotland Weekday Update explored whether, in the real world, Scotland could see a second independence referendum put to a vote in the next few years. Conclusion: the possibility of a second referendum is currently on the table and SNP politicians do not mince words when they say that the will of the Scottish people is paramount for their team, and that they (SNP) will ensure that Scotland has a timely chance to express its will. The Indy issue will be lurking in the background or right up front of almost everything that occurs on the political scene in Scotland in the upcoming year. The potential of independence will either affect or be affected by a broad range of British political issues.

No one in Scotland or the UK wants to turn this exercise into the dreaded “neverendum” that flips Scotland this way and that like a carnival coaster every few election cycles. Yet clearly in 2012 Scotland finished negotiations with the UK without having to accept language in the agreement that would have put a clear hard time limit on when another referendum could be brought if the first attempt failed. One might imagine that such language was something that the UK would have wanted to see and that Scotland would likely have found too limiting.

In any event, Scotland’s leaders will no doubt be careful not to actually put independence to a vote until there is a definite comfort level regarding the chances of its success. That means that folks in Scotland will be busy figuring out who the most likely new “Yes” voters might be and guessing about the impact of current affairs particularly from those Scots’ points of view. Lets engage in a little bit of that speculation ourselves.

What are the issues and who are the voters who will be the center of attention for all things Indy? We can see a few things that have already nudged Scotland towards a second vote and a few that are likely to have an impact in the future.

A Broken Vow. In the days just prior to the referendum vote last year the Better Together campaign leaders issued a series of fairly detailed promises regarding further devolution and they marketed those promises as “the Vow”. These promises were widely credited for solidifying many “No” votes. In the event, the changes, or “further devolution”, that the Conservative led Parliament is actually willing to give in return for last year’s ”No” vote have failed to meet the expectations of many “No” voters let alone nationalists. This failure likely had a great deal to do with the remarkable numbers of SNP Ministers elected to the UK Parliament in May this year. What effect will it have on the continuing independence debate?

A Benefit Cutting Welfare Bill. The UK government and parliamentary majority recently passed a severe welfare reform bill that cuts benefits for children and other vulnerable Scots at a time when food banks are already expanding. The Welfare Bill has served to coalesce the left against economic austerity policies developed and approved by non Scottish Conservative government and voters. Former First Minister Alex Salmond has commented that the combination of a weak Scotland Bill and a particularly severe Welfare Bill fails to deliver “Devo Max” and instead offers “Austerity Max”.

“Brexit” (short for a British “exit” from the European Union). David Cameron has threatened to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union as it is the Conservative party’s view that membership in the EU is an overall negative for the United Kingdom. Those on the left including the SNP in Scotland heartily disagree with Cameron’s posture vis a vis the European Union. Nicola Sturgeon has openly stated that if the UK withdraws from the EU without first gaining explicit approval from each UK nation, Scotland will almost certainly revisit Independence in the near term.

 Labour Fail. The Labour Party has largely gone silent in the wake of the disastrous General Election last May leaving the Tory led government to legislate almost at will without opposition except for that of the SNP 56. The stark absence of activity from Her Majesty’s Official Opposition party has prompted more than a few surly remarks including one suggesting that the Labour party leadership have been as effective as if they had departed the room and left the automatic vacation response on. In a particularly annoying bout of simply not showing up the Labour leadership instructed Labour MPs to abstain from voting on the draconian Welfare Bill thereby enabling the Tories to pass the bill. If Labour fails to find any traction many Scottish voters will have very little alternative but to hop onto the SNP band wagon. Caution is advised regarding the effect of political redistribution on the independence tally however. Scottish voters are well known for voting one way in a UK election and voting quite a different way in a Scottish election.

Where Will More “Yes” Votes Come From?

None of the foregoing will make a whit of difference in the larger Indy debate unless it strikes enough of a chord with enough “No” voters to swing the vote by greater than 10 percentage points. Of course the “Yes” people are predictably outraged that Scotland is once again stuck with a Conservative government and parliament in London for which it did not vote and that is not living up to its promises. However that state of affairs has been par for the course in Scotland/UK politics for decades now and it has not thus far moved the majority of Scots to choose independence.

A closer look at the “No” voters in last year’s referendum reveals some very interesting statistics. First, roughly 55% of native born Scots voted “Yes” for independence. Think about that. By and large it was the migrants whose families have immigrated to Scotland who were reluctant to leave the larger safety of the United Kingdom last September. Scotland is playing this statistic down but it does identify a potentially fertile pool from which to grow more “Yes” voters. While 55% of native born Scots voted in favor of independence 45% voted against it. A “NO” vote from a native Scot is a bit counter intuitive in most cases.

A material number of native Scots voting against Independence can be found in the Highlands and Islands, a community that has not historically been cozy and comfortable with rulers from London or from Edinburgh. On the whole, Highlanders and those from the western islands often view the committees and bodies just down the road at Edinburgh with greater disdain than rulers centered in London who typically take far less note of the far north. If Westminster’s arrogant disregard for Scottish needs and perspective continues apace, potentially the Highlands and Islands could become the SNP’s low hanging fruit in a second independence vote as a London government begins to prove itself more dangerous than an Edinburgh government.

Another potentially fertile pool of vote switchers are voters over the age of 55. Last September, voters below the age of 55 were generally “Yes” voters while those over 55 were more likely to reject independence. Scotland’s more senior voters became entangled in the Better Together speculative fear based campaign and were concerned about the impact on their benefits and otherwise stable lives in the turbulence and uncertainly of an independent Scotland. A stark reality check brought about by a failure of The Vow and a Welfare Bill that is tough on seniors. Will it be sufficient to nudge a few of Scotland’s older “No” voters to take another look at a separation from a Conservative led United Kingdom?

Well, there you have a little cogitation about Scottish independence. It will be fun to see how things play out and how close American speculation is to the mark in Scotland. Till next time, what say you?



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