Nicola Sturgeon in 2017. Photo courtesy Arctic Circle.
Boris Johnson won his gamble in this month’s United Kingdom elections. As a result, Britain will likely leave the European Union before the new year is more than one month old.
But there was another big winner in the same election, and her agenda is in almost complete opposition to Johnson’s. Nicola Sturgeon is the leader of the Scottish National Party – and although she is not formally the leader of the opposition in Parliament, she is apt to be Johnson’s most formidable foe for the next few years.
Johnson wants to keep the United Kingdom together and take it out of the EU; Sturgeon wants to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom and keep it in the EU. While she lacks the direct power to do either of those things, Sturgeon is uniquely positioned to make life difficult for Johnson. This is because, in addition to leading her party in London’s Parliament, she also leads Scotland’s own home-rule lawmaking body, the Scottish Parliament. Her title there is “first minister.” Her collection of hats as leader of the preeminent Scottish political party, head of its regional government and a member of the national legislature makes Sturgeon sound more like a political figure from China than one from Britain.
Sturgeon’s party gained 13 seats in the recent election, increasing its representation in London from 35 to 48 MPs. This is far behind even the diminished Labour Party, which will remain the formal opposition once it decides who will replace Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. Labour’s showing was so bad that about half of Sturgeon’s party gains came from lost Labour seats.
But this has not stopped Sturgeon from claiming that the results amount to an irresistible demand by Scottish voters for a second referendum on independence. Scots rejected independence in 2014, in what was billed as a once-in-a-generation vote authorized by London. Sturgeon argues that England’s vote to leave the EU two years later amounts to an unfair change in the terms of the deal. Fairness demands that we concede she has a point.
But it is not only England that is arguably reneging on the results of that earlier vote. After Scotland recommitted itself to the U.K. in 2014, London poured large sums into reorganizing and modernizing military bases in Scotland. Those bases are important to NATO, and therefore to America, as well as to the defense of the entire island that includes Scotland, England and Wales. An independent Scotland would not automatically be a NATO member, and the SNP opposes the presence of nuclear-capable submarines and other hardware in Scotland. An independent Scotland could compromise security all the way to Cornwall (the county at England’s southern tip) and in Atlantic waters far beyond.
Scottish independence would also create the possibility of a hard border between Scotland and its U.K. neighbors, England and Northern Ireland (which lies only a few miles across the water from Scotland at its closest point). This is not necessarily something that Scots were endorsing in their recent vote. Nor would they have been necessarily endorsing the creation of their own central bank with an independent monetary policy, or the alternative of converting from the pound to the euro. Right now Scotland prints its own currency, but this is symbolic. A Scottish pound is exactly equivalent to an English pound (even though some shops in England look askance at it).
Johnson and his close associates have said they will refuse a new independence referendum. Generally, he has shown that observers can take him at his word, at least to the extent that he will try to do what he says. In the end, Sturgeon lacks the power to force the issue. There is a chance the SNP might go to court to win endorsement for a referendum without London’s approval. The legal prospects of this are uncertain, however, as are the political prospects. Despite the SNP’s dominance in Scotland’s elections, polls still show a narrow majority of Scots opposed to independence – and that is before any potential campaign that would highlight the practical issues independence would bring.
We have not heard much about NATO and Scottish independence recently. If Sturgeon and her allies make enough noise, that might change. It is one more reason for Americans to take an interest in the political drama across the pond. But at least for now, Scotland and its independence movement do not seem to be going anywhere.