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Scottish nationalists launch second push for independence 

Scotland’s first minister has set a 2023 date for her desired second referendum on independence from the United Kingdom, with Scots evenly split on the move. But the immediate legal and political obstacles to the vote look hard to surmount.

LONDON (CN) — Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week announced Oct. 19, 2023, as her intended date for a second referendum on Scottish independence, firing the starting gun on a renewed nationalist push for secession from the United Kingdom.

Scotland voted to remain part of the U.K. in a historic independence referendum held in 2014, with 55% of voters backing the union. But the nation’s dominant Scottish Nationalist Party, or SNP, now argues that voters only chose to remain in the U.K. on the basis of continued European Union membership. Britain as a whole subsequently voted to leave the EU, though 62% of Scottish voters backed remaining an EU member in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Speaking in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday, Sturgeon said “Scotland – over generations – has paid a price for not being independent. Westminster governments we don’t vote for, imposing policies we don’t support, too often holding us back from fulfilling our potential.”

“The Conservatives have just six MPs in Scotland – barely 10% of Scottish representation – and yet they have ripped us out of the EU against our will,” she added. “Now is the time, at this critical moment in history, to debate and decide the future of our country.”

The renewed push for independence is opposed by the British government, which has ruled out another referendum. A spokesperson for the government told reporters on Wednesday, “We are clear that now is not the time to be talking about another independence referendum. People across Scotland want to see both of their governments working together on the issues that matter to them.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously suggested that another referendum should not be held for at least 40 years.

The fresh bid for independence comes after another round of strong electoral results for independence-backing political parties. In last year’s Scottish elections, the SNP won just short of a majority. However, together with the Scottish Greens – who also back leaving the U.K. – there is a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament.

Polling indicates that the nation is more or less evenly split on the issue of independence. A recent survey by pollster Ipsos MORI shows support for the union at 46% and support for independence at 45%, with 8% undecided.

In her speech to parliament this week, Sturgeon ruled out holding an unauthorized referendum, akin to Catalonia’s independence vote in Spain in 2017. She said there would be no point gaining an independence result unless it is internationally recognized, and that any doubts over legality would enable opponents to “avoid the substantive debate on independence.” As such, she has requested the judgment of the U.K.’s Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of the Scottish government holding another referendum.

At present, Scotland is a constituent nation of the U.K. While it has its own parliament based in Edinburgh which possesses extensive legislative powers, a number of key policy areas such as foreign affairs and defense remain "reserved powers" of the British Parliament in Westminster, London. Among these reserved powers are constitutional matters, meaning the Scottish government is unlikely to be able to hold an independence referendum without the consent of the U.K.’s Parliament.

The 2014 referendum was agreed with Westminster in advance, after the SNP won a majority in the Scottish Parliament back in 2011. But since Scots rejected independence in that vote, Britain's ruling Conservative Party argue that the matter has been resolved.

As such, the chances of the Supreme Court ruling in the SNP’s favor seem slim. But Sturgeon may be hoping that the appearance of London-based institutions blocking the ability of Scots to decide their future may act as a recruiting agent for independence, and tip the finely edged debate in their favor.

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Indeed, in a letter to the Johnson, she stressed as much, writing: “You and I will never agree on the merits of independence for Scotland. But I would expect any democrat to agree that it is unacceptable for the people of Scotland to be blocked from making that choice given the clear majority for a referendum in the Scottish Parliament.”

In her parliamentary speech, Sturgeon further emphasized her plan if a referendum could not be legally held, stating that the SNP would seek to turn the next general election into a de facto referendum on independence.

“My party will fight the U.K. general election on this single question: Should Scotland be an independent country?” she said, later clarifying that she would consider her party winning a majority of votes as a mandate for independence.

The strategy is high-risk for three reasons. Firstly, there is no legal mechanism through which securing a majority of votes in a general election could lead to independence. The argument will remain a political one, with further stalemate threatening to test the patience of the SNP’s more ardent pro-independence supporters.

Secondly, the next general election could happen at any time before January 2025. The British prime minister has the power to call a general election on a schedule of their choosing, meaning any proxy campaign for independence may not be on a timetable favorable to the SNP.

But thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, there is no guarantee that the SNP would be able to secure such a result. In the last U.K. general election in 2019, the party won 45% of the vote. And even during their strongest general election campaign in 2015, they polled just shy of a majority – at 49.97%. Thus, the party would have to go one better than what is commonly regarded as their high watermark – when they secured all but three of Scotland’s Westminster constituencies.

Sturgeon is widely regarded as a canny and effective political operator who has sustained high levels of public support for the SNP over a very long period of governance. She has remained part of the leadership of the Scottish government for 15 years: after being appointed deputy first minister in 2007, she took over the first minister role in 2014, a position in which she has remained unchallenged ever since. There is a sense among nationalists that a second push for independence is best conducted under her proven leadership, with any successor unlikely to share her popularity, communicative abilities or longevity.

In addition, Johnson is a deeply unpopular figure in Scotland, while his party remains anathema to much of the electorate. The general view among secessionists is the independence sentiment is likely to be higher now – on the back of 13 years of unpopular Tory governance, with a strongly disliked leader and no other obvious route back into the EU – than in any other hypothetical political context.

Nevertheless, the strategy adopted by Sturgeon is clearly high-risk. The SNP’s best chance of securing a referendum would be to use their leverage during a hung Parliament – a general election which fails to produce a parliamentary majority – and make their support for a minority Labour administration contingent on Westminster consenting to an independence vote. Yet the party’s new approach risks galvanizing the unionist vote across Britain behind the Conservative Party, and thus making precisely such a scenario less likely.

For many supporters of Scottish independence, there is a growing sense of "now or never." It is a sentiment struggling to find a way to coexist with a political establishment south of the border for whom "never" is the only option on the table.

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