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This article was first published by Stratfor Worldview and is reprinted here with permission.

The issue of Scottish independence is re-emerging ahead of the country’s May 2021 parliamentary election. The U.K. Parliament’s opposition to a new independence referendum will create debate over how to react, though the Scottish government remains unlikely to push for unilateral secession. On Nov. 30, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that if her Scottish National Party (SNP) wins the country’s parliamentary elections next year, it will push for an independence referendum “in the early part” of the new legislative term, though she did not provide a specific date. According to Sturgeon, the U.K. Parliament cannot veto Scotland’s “inalienable right of self-determination.” This means U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, which controls a majority of seats in the U.K. Parliament, will face pressure for another Scottish independence vote less than a decade after the 2014 referendum.

  • Scotland held an independence referendum in 2014, when 55 percent voted to remain in the United Kingdom. 
  • Some opinion polls put current support for Scottish independence above 50 percent. A combination of factors explains this, including long-standing support for independence, opposition to Brexit and criticism of the British government’s management of the COVID-19 crisis. 

The SNP will almost certainly win Scotland’s 2021 election, giving it the political momentum to push for another independence vote. Scottish opinion polls consistently put the SNP’s voting intention well above 50 percent, and the party will campaign on the promise of another independence referendum.The SNP’s official position is that it will not do anything illegal, but some fringe factions of the pro-independence camp believe Scotland should organize an independence referendum even without the U.K. Parliament’s authorization. The SNP has also suggested that it could take the issue of the U.K. Parliament’s powers over an independence referendum to court, which could open the door to a lengthy legal dispute. 

  • Under the Scotland Act 1998, the Scottish parliament cannot pass legislation relating to matters reserved to the U.K. Parliament, including the unity of the United Kingdom. The issue has never been tested in court. 
  • When Catalonia unilaterally declared independence from Spain in 2017, European governments sided with the Spanish government and many companies moved their legal seats outside of Catalonia. Fear of similar political and economic repercussions of taking unilateral action will be a factor in the SNP’s decisions. 
  • Protests and acts of civil disobedience in Scotland are possible in the likely case that the U.K. Parliament does not authorize an independence referendum.
  • In addition to the Conservatives, other opposition parties in Scotland, such as the Scottish Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, are also against an independence referendum. 

The COVID-19 crisis may postpone any serious attempts for independence until 2022 or beyond by forcing the SNP to focus first on mitigating the immediate health and economic fallout from the pandemic. On Nov. 28, Sturgeon said that her responsibility was ensuring “the health and wellbeing of the country” and that she remained “very focused” on “trying to steer [Scotland] through a pandemic.”

  • According to the Scottish government, the country’s economy could contract by around 10 percent in 2020.
  • Some private reports have also forecasted that Scotland’s GDP may not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. 

A strong push for independence in Scotland could eventually force the U.K. government to consider transferring additional powers to the Scottish parliament. Such moves, however, may not be enough to appease the SNP’s push for a referendum. The issue of Scottish independence will thus likely continue to raise questions about the future of the U.K.’s territorial integrity for years to come.

  • In October, U.K. media reported that the British government had allegedly commissioned a report asking for potential measures to appease calls for Scottish independence. The measures would allegedly include transferring additional financial powers to Scotland and granting it a different status from the rest of the United Kingdom on issues such as immigration.