How Theresa May's decision to call an election could help Scotland's independence forces

Prime Minister Theresa May is seeking to take advantage of the Labour opposition's weakness to bolster her hand in talks with the European Union.
Prime Minister Theresa May is seeking to take advantage of the Labour opposition's weakness to bolster her hand in talks with the European Union.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spent the past month pushing for a second referendum on independence - only to end up with a different vote as a result of Prime Minister Theresa May's surprise announcement of a British general election on June 8.

While May is seeking to take advantage of the Labour opposition's weakness to bolster her hand in talks with the European Union, polls suggest that she won't be the only one to benefit. The Scottish National Party (SNP) is forecast to sweep up again and Sturgeon may also emerge with a reinforced mandate.

The dual outcome, if polls are to be believed, is a consequence of Brexit's dominance of the British political landscape and a testament to its power to divide the country even as May insists it is uniting the public.

Britain as a whole voted by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to quit the EU, yet in Scotland a bigger majority opted to remain, allowing both May to claim that Brexit is inevitable and Sturgeon to call Brexit democratically unacceptable for the majority of Scots who voted against it.

The upshot is that while nationally the election is likely to focus on withdrawal from the EU, in Scotland the campaign is already shaping up to be all about the right to hold another vote on leaving Britain once the terms of Brexit become clear.

The snap election has "thrown a spanner in the works regarding the timing, but it doesn't change the direction of travel," said Craig McAngus, a politics lecturer at Aberdeen University.

"It's going towards another independence referendum regardless of these curveballs."

With a seemingly unassailable lead in the polls, May is betting on her Conservatives winning greater control of the British Parliament and stifling opposition to Brexit.

The SNP has a similarly dominant position in Scotland after winning virtually all the country's 59 districts in 2015. The party's leadership was quick to frame the election as the Tories against Scotland, with the risk of more austerity and a Brexit that pulls Britain out of Europe's lucrative single market.

Sturgeon called May's election plan a "huge political miscalculation" and said she'd fight to "make Scotland's voice heard."

Her deputy party leader, Angus Robertson, said the Scottish government already has a mandate for another referendum and the June election will be about whether the country is willing to give the Tories a "blank check" for a "hard Brexit."

Opponents who support the three-centuries-old union with England and Wales are already making it about stopping Sturgeon's drive to hold another independence vote.

The Conservatives and Labour Party in Scotland said they would use the election to challenge the plan. "We know the SNP will use this campaign to try and manufacture a case for separation," Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said.

NATIONALIST MACHINE

The SNP's machine - about one in 45 Scots is a party member - is used to fighting elections, just as much as the electorate is used to voting in them.

Since losing the first independence referendum in September 2014 by 55 per cent to 45 per cent, the SNP won 56 seats in the British Parliament and then a third term running the semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh in 2016.

Last month, the Scottish Parliament backed Sturgeon to seek the legal means from British to hold another plebiscite on going it alone once the terms of Brexit became clear by spring of 2019.

May responded by saying "now isn't the time," before judging it was the right time for her to call a general election.

Polls suggest the SNP "will hang on to most if not all" of the districts it won in 2015, according to John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. It's one of the factors that makes it tougher for May to achieve the landslide victory she might be looking for, he said.

KEY QUESTIONS

Sturgeon has been trying to build the case for another independence referendum in the wake of the Brexit vote. The challenge is to convince enough people to take the leap of faith the next time around, whenever that might be, and address concerns over the currency, finances and EU membership.

In the background, the Scottish economy has been spluttering because of the collapse in oil prices. It shrank 0.2 per cent in the fourth quarter from the previous three months and was flat compared with a year earlier, according to a government report this month. Figures due by early July will show whether the country is officially in recession or not.

Scotland's EU status is also in question, and it would probably have to apply to rejoin the bloc as a new independent state if it votes to quit Britain.

While a British election shunts the independence referendum back to centrestage in Scotland, it also forces the SNP to come up with answers to some pressing questions, according to McAngus in Aberdeen.

"One problem for the SNP is that it is going to speed up the decision about independence," he said. "It will force them to come to the table with something."