When the Covid-19 pandemic lifts, Boris Johnson will have one more crisis left to deal with: the potential breakup of the United Kingdom. Lately the Scottish National Party (SNP) has drawn up a ‘roadmap’ to independence, hoping to prompt a political or legal showdown.
The move capitalises on polls that are showing strong support for Scottish independence, sometimes outright and sometimes with neutrals discounted. And yet the Westminster government can probably veto it indefinitely. So what will happen?
Most analysis has focused on the immediate events, but longer trends may prove more telling. I was struck by a recent comment from the Economist on the matter:
Far from being inevitable, the break-up of the UK would be historically remarkable. Since the SNP’s birth in 1934 more than 100 states have secured independence. Almost all were born of war, decolonisation or economic collapse. Breaking away from a prosperous democracy in peacetime is another matter.
A long view of the likelihood of any political event tries to find precedent. In this case the Economist notes the lack thereof, quoting University of Edinburgh professor Nicola McEwen as saying, “There are plenty of examples of nationalist movements in advanced democratic countries, but none of these has led to independence.”
I’ve previously tried to calculate the odds of the SNP securing and winning a second independence referendum, using data from the Database and Search Engine for Direct Democracy. As you might expect, previous independence referendums proved difficult to place in neat categories.
For one thing, many independence referendums were held without sanction from the central state. Some referendums likewise seemed to have been tampered with, while other votes were passed with margins that usually only dictators enjoy in elections. Re-runs were rare as well.
There were therefore few obvious analogues for Scotland’s roadmap to independence. First minister Nicola Sturgeon has said many times that she would not seek an unofficial vote, even if the radical nats seem to be pressing her to hold one.
There are nonetheless some referendums in democratic countries that look similar to the Scottish case. Quebec has held two referendums in living memory, first in 1980 and later in 1995. Despite these efforts Canada is still whole, although in the latter vote only a percent separated independence supporters from their opponents.
More recently Catalonia held a wildcat referendum which was rejected by central government, the Spanish courts and international observers, as well as being boycotted by those opposed to independence for the region. It is this chaotic example that Sturgeon is keen to avoid emulating.
Catalonia’s struggles evince a general trend within the European Union: no member state has disintegrated within the bloc’s 27 years of existence. One, Germany, even grew bigger under the bloc’s predecessor organisation when east united with west.
Ironically, the event that perhaps most closely tracks what Sturgeon wishes to accomplish is what’s thought to be spurring Scottish independence. Brexit campaigners certainly spoke about political independence, using the term ‘sovereignty’, and the exit required painful negotiations with the central state in Brussels.
Some will argue that London’s ability to call a referendum and trigger Article 50 meant that the UK already was independent. But the EU’s lawmaking abilities and other trappings of statehood at least make the point debatable.
That aside, the Economist is right to point that Scotland becoming independent through sheer force of voting would be novel. There is, as the say, a first time for everything. But as a rule it is probably not now.