It's Not Just Brexit, Scottish Independence Is Back in Playby
Nationalists lead poll by 30 points before May 5 election
Scots will then back EU membership in June referendum
Gary Noble was drilling wellheads in the North Sea when he voted for Scottish independence in 2014. Having lost his oil job and found work selling electrical appliances and couches in a rent-to-own store in Aberdeen, he’d jump at the chance to vote the same way again.
“I went from 50,000 pounds ($73,000) a year to queuing for a food parcel,” said Noble, 31, his roustabout’s overalls swapped for a grey shirt, slacks and a name badge. “Aberdeen needs something done.”
Noble’s career reflects the vagaries of Scotland’s oil industry as the price of crude has plunged, taking with it the jobs that allowed Aberdeen to lay claim to being Europe’s oil capital. His political convictions underscore what’s at stake for the wider U.K. in this week’s elections to the Scottish Parliament that polls show will deliver another clear victory for the Scottish National Party.
Scotland’s drive for independence was supposed to run out of road after voters rejected it in the September 2014 referendum, the economic case hollowed out as the price of oil the nationalists said would underpin growth collapsed. Less than two years later, Britain’s constitutional future is again in question, with Prime Minister David Cameron’s in-out referendum on U.K. membership in the European Union the potential trigger for another run at Scottish independence.
“The anxiety for Scotland is much less,” Alex Salmond, who led the SNP government from 2007 to 2014, said in an interview in Singapore last month. “Because either way, Scotland is going to end up staying in Europe.”
Keep the Dream
Noble is a case in point. He says that he wants to stay in the EU, though for Scotland to leave the U.K. He argues an autonomous Scotland that gained oversight of energy matters and North Sea tax revenue from the U.K. would better look after the oil industry and help revive Aberdeen, Scotland’s third-largest city.
Polls suggest he’s not alone; in fact, the question is not whether the party now led by Nicola Sturgeon will win a third term on May 5, but by how much.
“The referendum put the dream of independence pretty close for people and it’s now become the dominant political division,” said Craig McAngus, lecturer in politics at Aberdeen University. “It’s like ‘stick with us and we’ll keep pushing -- the dream will never die.”’
The SNP’s lead over both Cameron’s Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party, which ran the semi-autonomous Scottish administration from its inception under Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1999 until May 2007, is 30 percentage points, according to a TNS poll.
That chasm between sentiment in Scotland and the rest of the U.K. was underscored in Britain’s general election last May, when Cameron won an unexpected majority with just one Conservative lawmaker elected north of the border. A further split has emerged over the June 23 referendum on Europe, with polls suggesting Scots will opt to remain by a similar 30-point margin even as the outcome in England -- with a population of 50 million to Scotland’s 5 million -- looks too close to call.
Sturgeon, 45, has used her role as Scotland’s leader, or first minister, to make the SNP synonymous with the government in Edinburgh it has run for the past nine years and position the party as the reliable steward of health policy, child care and free university education. Since the general election, the SNP is also the second-largest opposition party at Westminster, countering the U.K. government’s budget cuts and Conservative splits over the EU.
And yet the economic clouds are gathering. The SNP government’s budget forecasts for an independent Scotland were based on an oil price of more than $100 a barrel -- it fell below $30 in January. Tax revenue from the North Sea is now in the millions of pounds rather than the billions outlined in the nationalist blueprint for leaving the U.K.
Conservative opponents say the economic rationale for full independence has been blown away and the SNP must “move on” to focus on Scotland’s very real problems. In any case, they say, the U.K. government is already transferring more powers from London, including over income tax. The SNP chose not to pass on a planned U.K. tax cut for higher earners to maintain spending on public services.
Labour points to a failure to close the education gap between rich and poor as evidence of the SNP’s failings. Both have attacked Sturgeon for refusing to accept the result of the 2014 independence referendum by leaving the door open to another vote, which she has said could happen if polling showed a clear majority of Scots wanted it.
“As Scotland becomes more and more autonomous, then the SNP’s record will come under scrutiny and divide people,” said McAngus, the politics lecturer.
Back in Aberdeen last month, the city’s Maritime Museum hosted an exhibition showing the prosperity brought by the oil industry as shipbuilding and fishing waned in the 1970s. It was accompanied by a graph of the oil price that stops in 2014 close to $130 a barrel. A red digital readout of Brent crude futures above it read “Friday 16:45 $36.06.”
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“What comes after oil?” said Roderick Mowat, 60, who witnessed the impact on his home city and has worked for the past decade at the museum overlooking the grey harbor. “We just don’t know.”