Why Scotland’s Independence Is Back on the Table: QuickTake Q&A

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Scotland to Seek Second Independence Vote From Britain

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon plans to call another vote on independence. Her reasoning: Scots didn’t vote for Brexit and are now being sidelined, exposing a “democratic deficit” that only breaking away from the U.K. can ultimately fix. Prime Minister Theresa May says she can’t have one right now because Britain is busy leaving the European Union.

1. Wasn’t there already a vote on Scottish independence?

In September 2014, when Scots voted 55 percent to 45 percent against becoming an independent country. At the time, Sturgeon described the referendum as a “once in a generation” event. But she now argues that the U.K.’s June 2016 vote to leave the EU fundamentally changed what it means to be part of the U.K.

Scottish nationalists failed in their 2014 bid for independence, but Brexit changes everything.

(Source: Bloomberg)

2. Would Scotland vote to leave if given another chance?

That split in public opinion remained mostly intact, until recently. A poll in February showed the gap had narrowed to two percentage points. A poll in March found an even 50-50 split -- intriguing, for sure, but not yet enough to constitute "a consistent trend," said Anthony Wells, a pollster at YouGov Plc. Few polls have shown that a majority of Scots actually want another crack at independence.

3. Does Sturgeon have the power to call another vote?

Yes, if you ask Scottish nationalists. No, if you ask the U.K. government. The 2014 vote was called by the Scottish Parliament under one-time powers granted to it by the U.K. Parliament. Following that precedent, May would have to agree to another referendum, and she’s been clear she opposes one. Whether she could sustain that position depends on how political pressure shifts in Scotland and how Sturgeon plays her hand. The Scottish Parliament voted on March 28 to give Sturgeon permission to seek an agreement with the U.K. government for a so-called Section 30 Order, granting “the ability of Scotland to legislate for an independence referendum.” The U.K.’s response was swift: there will be no negotiations and the focus is on leaving the EU.

4. When would a vote happen, if at all?

That depends on how the standoff between Sturgeon and May over the timing plays out. Sturgeon says the referendum would be held between the fall of 2018 and the spring of 2019. At the very least, May would want to put off the vote until Brexit is a done deal, so well into 2019 or even later.

5. How does Brexit factor into Scottish independence?

Part of the argument for independence is that the Scots and the English are fundamentally different people who want different things; another is that the U.K. forces Scots to do things against their will. Brexit supports both these points. Scotland voted to stay in the EU, but has to leave because the English voted otherwise. Scotland has voted for more socialist-leaning parties in recent decades, and now finds itself under a Conservative, English government.

6. Do the exact terms of Brexit matter?

May’s determination to go for a “hard Brexit” -- taking Britain out of the EU’s single market -- makes a Scottish independence bid more complicated. Under the independence scenario envisioned by nationalists in the 2014 referendum, Scotland would have kept the pound, gotten a seat on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee and had no border with the rest of the U.K. (since both would have been EU members). Brexit changes all that. If Scotland were to separate from a post-Brexit U.K., there could be a need for a proper border, and it’s hard to imagine a government that insists on a "hard Brexit" offering Scots a say in economic policy.

7. Would Scotland automatically remain in the EU?

In short, no. But then we are in uncharted waters. The EU has said Scotland wouldn’t be able to take the U.K.’s membership, meaning it needs to apply. Given the U.K. has been a part of the EU since 1973, joining might be expedited because European laws are already established in Scotland. What’s more, the Scottish government’s proposed “compromise” with the U.K. was to retain access to the single market, not full EU status, so that could be an option if Scotland voted for independence. The biggest hurdle in any case might be Spain, which is keen not to give Catalonia a road map for secession, though Madrid recently suggested it wouldn’t veto a membership application from Scotland.

8. So can Sturgeon win it?

Scottish independence is the cause that drew her into politics. She must dream of being the person to lead her country out of the union, and she said on March 13 that she believes she can win a second plebiscite. If she succeeds in holding a second vote and loses, it will would really settle the question for a generation this time.

The Reference Shelf

— With assistance by Alex Morales

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