Professor Sir John Curtice on Scottish Independence

By Lewis Burns

Next week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is set to announce a route map detailing the Scottish Government’s plans to promote and hold a second Scottish independence referendum for 2023. Following Brexit and Boris Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister, the Scottish National Party have insisted that a second referendum is vital in securing economic freedom, and making Scotland a “Wealthier, happier, fairer” country. Critics, on the other hand, say Scotland’s decision to go independent would only harm itself, and that Scotland’s public deficit could cause economic turmoil if the country can no longer rely on the United Kingdom.

The Strathclyde Telegraph spoke to Professor Sir John Curtice about May’s Scottish council elections, and what the results could mean for Scottish Independence. Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, Professor Sir John Curtice is the media’s go-to man for election polling and predicting the future of British politics. 

A significant development in Scotland is the Scottish Conservatives seemingly losing their stance as the ‘pro-union’ party, with Labour taking a substantial amount of the anti-independence voter-base from the Tories.

“For the past six years or so, it’s been clear which is the principal party or the principal political voice of the pro-union case in Scotland and it’s certainly helpful to the UK Government in giving it a certain amount of standing north of the border… The difficulty that is created is that Labour’s vision for running the union, including the constitutional settlement, isn’t the same as the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party certainly has no plans for constitutional change, whereas the Labour Party is still talking about further devolution. The unionist side in Scotland has the disadvantage of being politically fragmented, whereas the SNP clearly dominate on the yes side. It’s not clear which of the parties can claim to be the principal voice of the pro-union case north of the border.”

The council elections were a big success for both the SNP and the Scottish Green Party, with the SNP obtaining 22 more seats in Scottish parliament, and the Greens increasing their presence in Scottish Parliament to 6%, their highest yet.

“I would say Patrick Harvey’s hand has been strengthened somewhat, as a result of the local elections. It’s clear that in some places, notably Glasgow, the Greens did advance at the expense of the SNP.”

However, Sir Curtice makes one thing boldly clear. The success of the SNP and Scottish Greens does not mean rising support for Scottish Independence.

“No. Absolutely no sign at all… If you take the vote last year it’s 50/50, if you take the opinion polls, it’s 50/50, and there’s no reason to believe that’s changed in the last twelve months.”

An important part of the independence issue is the current UK Conservative Government’s refusal to authorise the next referendum. In 2012, the UK and Scottish Government signed the Edinburgh Agreement, which provided a clear basis for the terms of the referendum, and gave Scotland the legal authority to vote for independence. 

Today, the UK Government is far less accepting of a second referendum, with Boris Johnson explicitly calling the decision: “irresponsible and reckless” and a spokesman for Johnson recently stating: “The UK government’s position is that now is not the time to be talking about another referendum.” Sir Curtice casts doubt on the Scottish Government’s legal ability to hold the referendum it wants.

“If the Scottish Government were willing to hold a referendum of the kind that it talked about when it was a minority administration between 2007 and 2011: ‘Do you agree the Scottish Government should enter into negotiations with the UK Government with a view to Scotland becoming an independent country?’ That was a question that was carefully framed to be at least potentially within the remit of the Scottish parliament. While most public lawyers think it wouldn’t succeed, some at least think it might.  If the SNP holds a referendum with the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ There aren’t many public lawyers who believe that will get past the Supreme Court. It all depends on the tactics the SNP play.”

The SNP’s reason for pushing for a referendum in 2023, while the legal basis is still blurry, is explained by Sir Curtice.

“The SNP is pursuing a referendum next year because they will want the process of at least attempting to hold a referendum, albeit not necessarily successfully, to have happened before the next UK election. The point of trying to have it now would be to make it clear that the current Conservative administration isn’t willing to hold one and, ironically, is willing to rely on the process of judicial review to ensure that it doesn’t happen, not something that the current Conservative government is necessarily known for.”

In terms of possible routes the SNP may have to secure an independent Scotland, Sir Curtice points to a specific event: the next UK general election.

“It is probably the next UK general election that is the next crucial event in this story… The truth is that the SNP’s best prospect for ending the block at Westminster is if we get a hung UK Parliament. If we get a hung Parliament out of the next UK general election in which the Labour party is looking for people who would help to sustain a Labour minority administration, that may be the SNP’s opportunity… I would not rule out the possibility that in those circumstances, the Labour party might agree to some kind of referendum. Though perhaps a multi-option referendum, or a referendum in which the choice is between Labour’s plans and the SNP’s plans.”

Essentially, the Scottish Government faces two choices in regards to how they hope to secure an independent future for Scotland.

“Either the SNP change the kind of referendum they’re looking for, and succeed in negotiating under the Scotland Act, assuming it survives the Supreme Court, and even then the UK Government could potentially stop it. Or, basically, they’re setting themselves up with a view to strengthen their position in 2024, hope it’s a hung Parliament, and hope to hold a referendum after that.”