The SNP and the Future of the UK

By Oscar Phillips ’21

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon (Photo Credit: Financial Times)
First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon (Photo Credit: Financial Times)

For most, the United Kingdom’s general election last December was significant because of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative landslide. By electing Boris Johnson, the UK all but guaranteed the eventual completion of Brexit as well as the absolute destruction of the Labour party and their beleaguered leader, MP Jeremy Corbyn. However, what may be just as monumental was the performance of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and their own leader, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon.


The SNP won big in the election; they picked up thirteen seats, claimed 48 of 59 Scottish parliamentary seats, and won the constituency of Jo Swinson, the former leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats. The SNP’s closest competitor, the Tories, mustered only six seats and lost the popular vote to the SNP by twenty points. Labour, once the dominant party of Scotland in the Blair years (1997-2007), held on to just one seat. For the foreseeable future, the SNP can claim to be the only legitimate party in Scotland.


The significance of the SNP’s rise goes beyond their left-wing politics. They identify as a centre-left social democratic party, which comes as no surprise as Scotland is a predominantly liberal country. What is more grabbing is the SNP’s stance regarding Scotland’s departure from the UK. The SNP is now demanding another referendum on Scotland's status and for the results to be respected by the UK, European Union, and the world. If a referendum is delivered, the SNP will campaign for Scottish independence and for Scotland to become another Commonwealth nation in the same mold as Canada or Australia.


The demand for a second referendum comes after the first did not achieve the nationalists’ goal. Six years ago, Former British Prime Minister David W. Cameron granted Scotland a referendum on independence. Prime Minister Cameron, a unionist, urged Scotland to stay in the UK. While enthusiasm for the Yes Scotland (Leave) campaign was high, especially among young people, Scotland voted 55-45 to remain in the UK. The ten-point margin indicated that the matter would be settled, leaving First Minister Sturgeon and the SNP to resign themselves to fighting for an increased role in Westminster politics rather than independence.


Clearly, things have not gone as planned. The calls for a referendum have been reignited and the issue is far from settled. The change in tune stems largely from Brexit. While Britain has always had a Eurosceptic part of the population, the first referendum occured before Brexit, when Britain’s membership in the EU was secure; the Scots voted on remaining in the UK under the impression that the UK was remaining in the EU.


As a whole, Scotland is significantly more pro-EU than their English counterparts. In the 2016 EU Referendum, the UK voted 52-48 to leave, buoyed by the fact that England voted to leave by a six-point margin. Scotland, on the other hand, cast their vote, 62-38, decisively for the European Union. Unfortunately for Scotland, the nature of the two countries’ population means that even if all of those who voted in Scotland had voted for Remain, Brexit still would have occurred.


The demand for another referendum has only grown stronger because of the ongoing COVID pandemic. Prime Minister Boris Johnson pursued a herd immunity strategy early on, only to reverse course and go for quarantine. The end result has left the UK as the third worst hit nation in the world (behind the US and Brazil) and Prime Minister Johnson’s personal approval cratering.


For many Scots, this was an unforgivable blunder by a prime minister they did not vote for—one who had already subjected them to a huge decision they repeatedly rejected. To the Scots, Prime Minister Johnson’s erroneous COVID-19 response serves as a perfect demonstration as to why Scotland must be independent. For them, a few wiser moves by a Prime Minister they chose in an independent Scotland—which does not have some of the population density of England—would have saved Scots from the UK’s disastrous situation.


On December 13th, 2019, the day after the general election, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told reporters that she would demand a second referendum. And, with Brexit officially happening and the perceived COVID-19 blunders of the Tory government, Leave holds a small lead over Remain for the first time since 2015.


While the emergency of COVID may have momentarily shifted the focus from another referendum, the demands for a second referendum will likely strengthen, and the future of the United Kingdom will only become more unclear.