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The Sturgeon Strategy: What is it and will it work?

The Scottish government has filed legislation to enable a second referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. Paul Anderson argues it will take more than ire over Brexit to win a majority.

Notwithstanding the vote in September 2014 for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom, constitutional issues remain at the heart of the political debate in Edinburgh and beyond. The ongoing Brexit debacle has fuelled the Scottish government’s demands for a second independence referendum (Indyref2), bolstered by the idea that the emphatic vote in Scotland to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum is simply ignored by the governing politicians in Westminster. Having secured a record three MEPs and 38 percent of the vote in the European elections in May 2019, the Scottish government has stepped up its calls for a second independence referendum, including the publication of framework legislation to facilitate the vote before the next Scottish Parliament election in 2021.

The framework bill—the Referendums (Scotland) Bill—does not stipulate the date or question of a future referendum. Instead, this would be set by secondary legislation once the Scottish government has secured the necessary transfer of legal authority from Westminster to hold a vote. The Scottish government has not yet officially requested this transfer of power, but Sturgeon herself has acknowledged that no second vote on independence should take place without the backing of Westminster. The first minister’s strategy is cautiously pragmatic.

The Sturgeon Strategy

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote in 2016, Nicola Sturgeon’s government called for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Buoyed by the overwhelming victory of the Remain ticket in Scotland and frustrated by Theresa May’s unilateral approach to EU withdrawal (which involved very little tangible input from the devolved nations), Sturgeon believed the people of Scotland should have a choice between Brexit Britain and pro-European Scotland. Despite a kneejerk response in the polls immediately after the 2016 referendum which saw support for independence slightly rise above the 45 percent mark secured in the 2014 referendum, the decision to withdraw from the EU has not seen any substantial rise in support for independence. Indeed, the first minister’s decision to link Brexit with Indyref2 was not well received by some of the Scottish electorate—the SNP lost 21 seats in the 2017 snap general election, which Sturgeon attributed in part to Indyref2. As a result, she has had to pursue a delicate balancing act, giving enough to satisfy her hard-line independence supporters while eschewing risks that would jeopardise winning the future support of undecided voters.

The importance of the last point was illuminated in April 2019 when the first minister proposed cross-party talks on further devolution for Scotland as well as a Citizens Assembly, which would presumably examine a number of constitutional options —including but not limited to independence—advanced by parties of all political hues in Scotland. Sturgeon reiterated that a vote on independence would not take place without the backing of Westminster, positing that precedent had been set in 2014. More important, however, there seemed to be acknowledgement that a unilateral and thus illegal referendum would risk rather than facilitate independent statehood. Catalonia is a case in point.

More recently, however, the SNP has been more successful in making noise about the potential calamitous ramifications of Brexit, particularly a no-deal scenario. A quick analysis of SNP rhetoric in recent months underlines this point, with particular emphasis on the prospect of Boris Johnson as prime minister and what it would mean for Scotland. This has now become a fundamental pillar of the SNP’s strategy, rousing frustration among all voters, not just those sympathetic with the independence cause. In addition to using Brexit to make the case for independence, the lack of willingness on the part of Theresa May (and likely the next leader of the Conservative party) to concede the power to hold a second independence referendum will become increasingly central to the SNP and the Scottish government’s argument that Westminster is unreasonable and sees Scotland as holding an inferior place in the Union.

Despite the Scottish government’s vociferousness in calling for a second independence referendum, its plans are likely to go unheeded. This will no doubt frustrate the party leader and its membership, but in the long term it will play into the hands of the Scottish government’s strategy of stirring frustration with the Conservative government’s intransigence on holding a second referendum. It is a truism that the majority of the SNP’s members are eager for a second referendum, but like Sturgeon herself, cautious pragmatism prevails. The members know that a referendum can only be held when the numbers are firmly within their favour. Where, then, does this leave the Sturgeon strategy?

The Road Ahead

The SNP continues to dominate the Scottish political scene, but neither opinion polls nor election results show that there is a clear and sustained majority for independence. The potential fallout from Brexit will be key to building one. EU withdrawal, however, also demonstrates the risks and challenges involved in exiting a union. The future case for independence may well be predicated upon stirring frustration with Brexit, but more will be needed to secure a majority vote for independent statehood. That being said, the Sturgeon strategy is to press ahead with growing momentum for a second vote.

In the likely event that Theresa May’s successor will rule out the transfer of power for a second referendum, the SNP will seek to use the 2021 Scottish Parliament election to secure a mandate for Indyref2. Current polling shows the party is on course to win the elections, but securing a majority as in 2011 is not guaranteed, especially since the electoral system is designed to avoid such a feat. A combination of SNP and Scottish Green parliamentarians may well result in a pro-independence majority, but the inability of the SNP to secure a majority on its own is likely to embolden the UK government’s refusal to transfer power for a second referendum. At the same time, however, the British government would do well to heed events continuing to evolve in Catalonia and Spain. Refusal to enter dialogue on the issue will merely damage already-tenuous relations and further destabilise the already-shaky foundations of the British state. There is no straightforward answer to the territorial dilemmas currently facing the British state, but as has been the case for the past decade, the constitutional configuration of the UK remains suspended in a state of flux.


Paul Anderson is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. His main research focuses on constitutional politics and secessionist movements.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.