A second independence referendum


This report from the UK think tank the Institute for Government looks at when and how Scotland could have a second independence referendum.

The SNP’s resounding victory in Scotland – taking 48 of 59 seats – was based on a manifesto calling for a second independence referendum. While the prime minister has the constitutional power to refuse to let Scotland hold one, this may not be sustainable if Scotland’s pro-independence parties continue to demonstrate they can muster strong public support. But holding a second independence referendum in 2020, as the SNP has demanded, would be a mistake. The report says the result of the UK general election has set Westminster and Holyrood on a collision course over the future of the Union. But important constitutional decisions should not be rushed.

The first referendum in 2014 took place more than three years after agreement on it was reached in principle. It would also take time for the Scottish government to set out its vision for independence, and for the UK government to develop alternative proposals for a reformed Union with more powers for Scotland, if it chose to do so. There is unlikely to be agreement on the UK’s future relationship with the EU by 2020, so voters would also not have clarity on what remaining in the UK would look like. The UK government may also wish to make any potential second referendum conditional on the result of the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, which could then be fought explicitly on the question of whether there should be another independence vote.

If the prime minister wants to preserve and strengthen the Union, he should now take the time to develop a positive vision to try to persuade the people of Scotland that their interests lie within the UK. This could include the devolution of additional powers to Edinburgh, new protections for Scotland that prevented Westminster from legislating in devolved areas, and rights for the devolved institutions to be involved in international negotiations and the development of post-Brexit common frameworks.

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