Liberty’s in every blow!

31 January 2024, 1035 EST

Scotland’s independence drive won’t disappear anytime soon.

In “Scots Wha Hae,” (from which the title of this post comes) Robert Burns calls on Scots to remember their victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, and never lose their desire for independence. Observers of UK politics, who assume Scottish independence is dead, would be well-served to re-read this poem.

Why some are writing off Scottish independence

In a recent article on Scottish politics, The Economist mocked a statement by Humza Yousaf–Scotland’s First Minister–that an industrial policy modeled on US President Biden’s approach could serve as a “blueprint” for a self-sufficient Scottish economy. The magazine claimed that the state-led economic policy Biden is championing could never work for smaller Scotland. Beyond that, they argue “no one…really thinks independence is coming soon.”

There are good reasons to be skeptical of a successful independence drive.

The 2014 independence referendum narrowly failed, and the UK Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that another referendum was illegal without UK approval.

Unresolved tensions and continued Scottish pride limit the extent to which the desire for independent will fade.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), which spearheaded the referendum and has controlled Scotland’s parliament since, is struggling. Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her husband are under investigation for misuse of party finances, and another scandal is brewing over deleted communications involving her management of Scotland’s pandemic policies.

The issues facing the SNP are starting to become apparent. Scottish voters are increasingly switching from the SNP to the Labour Party. This resulted in a shock loss for the SNP to Labour in an October 2023 by-election.

See approach proud Edward’s power-chains and slavery!

Unresolved tensions between Scotland and the UK government, and continued Scottish pride in its distinctiveness, limit the extent to which the desire for independent will fade.

First, while Scotland received devolved powers from the UK government in 1999, the details of the arrangement are constantly under threat. As I discussed here, most Scots voted against Brexit but were forced to leave the EU against their will. That continues to rankle. Additionally, the UK government has overstepped its powers to shut down Scottish government actions, including a gender reform bill and a recycling bill. The UK government even went so far as to force Scotland to repay legal bills as part of the court fight over the gender bill. With the ruling Tory party increasingly conservative and dominated by English interests, these tensions are likely to increase.

The reality is Westminster will remain dominated by English issues, and Scotland will periodically desire more autonomy, if not independence.

One could argue this will change with a likely Labour victory in the next election, expected sometime this year. Labour is certainly more in line with Scottish values, and has gained support from Scottish voters. But Labour’s dominance of Scotland is exaggerated. While the SNP has lost support, 69% of those who voted “Yes” in the 2014 referendum still back it. And the SNP defeat in a by-election followed the resignation of an SNP MP who broke Covid protocols; voter anger may be contained on this issue, and not extend to the rest of Scotland. Finally, Labour leader Keir Starmer has already irritated Scottish voters by abandoning a pledge to support green investment. As he drops progressive promises to appeal to centrist voters he will further alienate Scotland.

Even if a Starmer-led Labour could give Scotland every policy it desired, Scottish cultural pride would remain. This can be seen in a bill currently being debated in the Scottish Parliament, which would make Gaelic and Scots official languages and provide support for instruction in schools. These are the indigenous languages of Scotland, pushed out by English both indirectly and directly.

The reality is Westminster will remain dominated by English issues, and Scotland will periodically desire more autonomy, if not independence.

UPDATED for typo