SNP Conference: Sturgeon’s independence threat shows Brexit focus amid a backdrop of Tory-centralism

An increasingly reactionary and the centralist Conservative UK Government allows Sturgeon to play the ‘indyref card’ to empower Scotland’s voice.

Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon met in Edinburgh after May’s appointment as PM | Source: Scottish Daily News

After the vote to leave the European Union, it was clear the relationship between Scotland and the UK Government had to change once more. To the new Prime Minister Theresa May, it’s very clear that a new era of unionism and centralism is her path of choice for the British state, highlighted in her conference speech focussing on the UK Government being the only one sat around the negotiating table for Brexit, a distinct u-turn from her previous position of ensuring the devolved administrations would be involved fully.

After already announcing that the Scottish Government will form the legislation for a new referendum on independence, Nicola Sturgeon used her ‘Brexit speech’ at the SNP’s National Conference in Glasgow to lay out her Government’s approach to protecting Scotland’s place in the European Union, with 63% of Scots voting to remain on June 23. The final outcome, should no other strategy work, would be a new independence referendum held before Britain’s withdrawal from the EU at the end of March 2019. That threat of independence, however, is not the new march towards a ‘Free Scotland’ that many nationalists and Yes voters feel; instead, it is a ploy – a bargaining chip to strengthen Sturgeon’s position in her fight for Scotland’s voice to be recognised more prominently in the Brexit negotiations and in a post-Brexit UK.

Most opinion polls show that support for ‘Yes’ is virtually unaltered from September 2014, despite the differentiation in the European Union referendum. Scotland has also seen the rise of the Conservative Party once again under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, which became the biggest opposition party to the SNP’s minority government in May’s Scottish Parliamentary elections. Davidson’s Tories’ rise has occurred while the Labour Party has had many controversies over its position on the question of independence, some in the party being open to independence and even leader Kezia Dugdale saying that Labour wouldn’t automatically oppose a referendum. The Tories therefore have been able to capture the ‘unionist’ vote, and although not as large as the SNP, are now their biggest challengers.

Because of that, independence remains a controversial topic. However, it also remains a useful tool to use as a threat against the Conservative UK Government, which despite obviously being unionist, is cautious of the feeling in Scotland even now, with the independence referendum showing a clear appetite for separation and the SNP’s domination of Scottish politics Westminster, holding 54 of the 59 MPs. That domination and strength around Nicola Sturgeon’s position as First Minister means the threat of a second independence referendum would bring Theresa May’s government back to the negotiating table with Scotland.

That is a particularly powerful position, and he aim of renegotiating Scotland’s relationship with the UK Government in the context of Brexit is the aim here – not independence itself. Sturgeon wants Scottish representation at the negotiating table throughout the Article 50 process, while Theresa May has made it clear Brexit will be centrally managed from London. An independence referendum is a response to that; an attempt to gain more influence for the Scottish executive, something which is vitally important considering Scotland’s different needs from the EU, and is important for Wales and Northern Ireland’s administrations. The only way to really achieve that now, especially with the Conservatives’ new found affection for centralism, is with the threat of Scottish independence.

Despite a new campaign for independence being launched by the SNP, it’s unlikely that Brexit will result in the breakup of the United Kingdom at this point. Scotland’s economic foundations are strong, yes, but the fall in oil prices has damaged the SNP’s case dramatically. And while the EU Referendum showed the clear divide between much of England, Wales and Scotland, its unlikely to drive a public affection towards separatism. For now, independence remains a threat to gain Scottish influence over Brexit, but one which both sides – Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May – should be careful with.