Indyref 2

Why Scotland's Second Referendum Is Nothing Like the First

Looking at how the situation has changed ahead of #Indyref2.
March 14, 2017, 11:25am

(Top photo: Jane Barlow/PA Images)

The day after Scotland voted to stay within the UK, David Cameron appeared on Downing Street to greet the world's press. "The debate has been settled for a generation… there can be no disputes, no re-runs," he said, relishing the result.

That morning, from the gloomy despair of Glasgow's saltire-laden "Freedom Square" to the SNP halls of power at Holyrood, few would have disagreed. Fast forward to 2017 and Cameron's words are almost comical in their irrelevance. Having gambled on Brexit to settle a dispute over Europe within his own party, he lost, resigned, and as far as Scottish independence referendums go, we're back at square one.


Nicola Sturgeon's announcement yesterday that she will soon be seeking consent for a fresh referendum from both the Scottish Parliament (easy) and the UK government (less easy) doesn't simply mean a re-run of the 2014 vote, though. Set to be held between the autumn of 2018 and spring of 2019, the basic Yes or No question is likely to remain the same, at least if the SNP get their way – but much else has changed. What else could prove decisive?


Does anyone actually want a referendum again? That really depends on who you ask. Independence campaigners have been living for this moment ever since they lost the last one, so of course they do. Tens of thousands were newly politicised during the previous referendum, and campaigners will be seeking to rekindle that enthusiasm over the coming months.

For ardent supporters of the union, the question was settled in 2014 and the second poll is nothing more than further evidence of the SNP's grievance-fuelled crusade against all things good and British, like doing what you're told and going along with Brexit.

As for ordinary voters – if that category still exists in Scotland – a recent poll showed 56 percent against holding a pre-Brexit indyref, although that could change now there's one actually on the table. Inevitably, one of those official petitions to the government saying the referendum "should not be allowed" has also surfaced, cause that's how politics works in 2017.


It didn't take long for the SNP's campaigning machine to kick into action following Sturgeon's announcement on Monday morning. A website was launched immediately, collecting donations towards a £1 million funding target. By its first evening it had already raised well over £150,000.

Hidden in the small print, it would be easy to miss that the site is run by the SNP, and it's clearly designed to appeal to a wider group than just their supporters. If the party is already building up a war chest and contact database – the basic structure of an electoral campaign – it leaves less room for a more independent coalition like Yes Scotland to be formed. Maybe there's a reason for that – Yes Scotland didn't win, after all. Unlike the early days of the last referendum, though, there are already a plethora of established pro-indy groups with their own national networks in place, like Women for Independence and Business for Scotland.

A pro-independence demonstration in Glasgow in 2015 (Photo author's own)

Who would head up a pro-union campaign is harder to say. With Scottish Labour in disarray and already tarnished by their association with the Tories during the Better Together campaign, doing it all again is unlikely to win them any favours.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has already ruled herself out, no doubt much to the annoyance of the right-wing English commentators who never tire of talking her up.


It's no surprise that the SNP is making a song and dance about Europe, which is – after all – the entire justification for this referendum. It's a simple story to tell: Scotland voted to remain in the EU and is being forced into a hard Brexit by a Tory Prime Minister who won't concede any ground.

But an overemphasis on the idea that independence is about continuity in Europe and business as usual, rather than the idea of radical change put forward in 2014, may do little to enthuse working-class voters who came out heavily for Yes previously. Only four council areas voted Yes last time, and among them were two cities, Glasgow and Dundee, that had the lowest levels of turnout in the country. Encouraging working class voters to show up on polling day is essential if Yes is to stand a chance of winning.


At the same time, however, a key plank of the pro-union campaign's argument from last time, about an independent Scotland finding itself isolated outside of the EU or having to reapply for membership, now just looks silly. And dredging up old Better Together tweets about it never gets old.


The consensus goes that Yes failed in 2014 because it couldn't convince enough people – particularly older and middle class voters – of the economic case for independence, or satisfy questions about currency. If anything, that has got worse since 2014, with oil revenues falling dramatically.

SNP advisors have now even said they will not factor oil into their financial projections for an independent state. That seems like a sensible move, not least from an environmental perspective, and will allow a more realistic picture to emerge of what independence will look like. As for currency, it's still unclear, but we'll no doubt hear much more on that from all sides.


It was previously accepted that the SNP would not seek a new referendum until there was consistent polling showing strong support for independence, at say 55 or 60 percent. But then Brexit changed everything.

Politically, it will be difficult for Theresa May to refuse Sturgeon her wishes for a referendum, although she could insist that the timing of it is delayed until after the UK has left the EU. That would damage the SNP's case for continued EU membership and, having just undergone the major shock of Brexit, might put voters off opting for another in such quick succession.

The term "Project Fear" was coined by Better Together staffers during the first referendum campaign, as an in-joke about the scare tactics they knowingly employed. Asking why Scotland should sacrifice the safety and certainty of the union – the "best of both worlds", as they put it – for the gamble of independence formed the basis of their campaign.

This time around, Sturgeon will be hoping that her side can capitalise on those fears. The unknowns of an independent Scotland may not look so terrifying compared to a UK on the edge of a hard Brexit.