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Can Brexit be Sturgeon’s game-changer to secure Scottish independence?

Nicola Sturgeon has got off to a relatively low-key start with her fresh tilt at Scottish independence.

This month Scotland’s first minister launched what she hopes will be a successful push by her ruling Scottish National party for the country to leave the UK, saying: “Once the campaign is engaged, and today is the starting point of that, people’s minds start to focus.”

There will be much focus on Sturgeon on Tuesday in the Scottish parliament when she is expected to outline a road map towards an independence referendum that the SNP wants to hold by the end of 2023.

She is likely to face tough questions from opposition parties about how she plans to secure a legal referendum given Boris Johnson’s Conservative government at Westminster refuses to authorise one.

Her cause is not helped by opinion polls indicating that Scots’ views have not shifted decisively since the 2014 independence referendum, when people rejected leaving the UK by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.

This has prompted Sturgeon’s biggest detractors, including former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling — the face of the “No” campaign in 2014 — to claim she does not really want another referendum, but rather is looking to manufacture a fight with London to mollify her impatient supporters.

Analysts said that criticism may be simplistic, adding any future referendum vote would be close — based on current polls.

Brexit, which pulled Scotland out of the EU single market in 2021 despite the country voting to stay in the bloc, could be a game-changer for Sturgeon. The anti-Brexit SNP wants to take an independent Scotland back into the EU.

Some Scots who rejected independence in 2014 but were in favour of staying in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum are now more likely to support Scotland leaving the UK, according to analysts.

It means there is a close alignment between supporters of independence and EU membership that did not exist in 2014. These people should easily outnumber those who support Brexit and oppose Scottish independence.

“There has been a bit of a realignment on who supports independence . . . and that appears to be linked directly to Brexit,” said Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh.

“Brexit and everything that has unfolded since then has given a source of dissatisfaction that wasn’t there.”

UK economic underperformance linked to Brexit means it may be harder to make the case for Scotland retaining its 315-year union with England in any future referendum.

Sturgeon noted this month that Northern Ireland, by staying in the single market for goods under Johnson’s Brexit deal with the EU, had secured “significant economic benefits”.

Northern Ireland was the only UK region apart from London where gross domestic product was above pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of this year, according to official data.

Sturgeon’s cause could also be helped by Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland and the political chaos at Westminster, where 41 per cent of Conservative MPs voted to oust the UK prime minister this month.

John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and a leading pollster, said while support for independence had declined since 2020 and early 2021 — when Sturgeon’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis won her plaudits — an average 52 per cent to 48 per cent split in favour of staying in the UK meant “neither side can be sure they would win” a referendum.

He added Scots’ calculations did not necessarily align with the assumption that, having seen the economic and political cost of Brexit for the UK, they would conclude that breaking an older and more integrated union would be disastrous. They might conclude Brexit was worse than independence.

Curtice said Sturgeon’s challenge would be to convince Scots that their country’s long-term interests would be best served by independence, despite major questions on contentious issues — ranging from the choice of currency to a potential border with the rest of the UK.

Scotland’s first minister this month issued a paper claiming the country could flourish outside the UK. Other papers are planned on the currency, the border and EU accession.

Two polls conducted since the start of May have given the “No” side a victory margin of 2 percentage points, while a third had a result similar to the 2014 referendum, according to What Scotland Thinks, a social research agency.

Sturgeon signalled this month she was happy to start her fresh push for independence with public opinion roughly evenly split for and against.

But first Sturgeon has to secure a referendum: Johnson is unwilling to repeat how the then Conservative prime minister David Cameron authorised the Scottish government to hold the 2014 referendum.

Alister Jack, the Scottish secretary, was sticking with the Johnson government line last week, telling MPs that a referendum was not “where people’s priorities lie at the moment”.

This sets the scene for a legal battle between Sturgeon and Johnson over Scotland’s right to hold a referendum that could go all the way to the UK Supreme Court.

That may be a win for Sturgeon’s cause in the long run, even if she loses the legal case, according to Ciaran Martin, a former civil servant who led the Cameron government’s negotiating team ahead of the 2014 referendum.

“You can see the political value of such a judgment for the Scottish nationalist movement,” said Martin, adding it could strengthen support for independence on the basis that Scotland’s right to self-determination was not respected.


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