Will Scotland Leave U.K.? Independence Movement Dealt Blow by Scottish Leader

Nicola Sturgeon
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addresses the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland June 27. Russell Cheyne/Reuters

It's been one of the will-they won't-they stories of British politics for the past two-and-a-half years. After the Scottish people voted to stay part of the United Kingdom in an unexpectedly close referendum in the autumn of 2014, commentators have argued over whether Scotland would get another vote, and how soon.

On Tuesday, Scotland's pro-independence leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, was forced to back down in her latest bid for a new plebiscite. Here's why Scottish independence now looks further away than it has for some time.

Why was Scottish Independence on the table?

Sturgeon's Scottish National Party (SNP) won the 2015 general election in Scotland by a landslide, taking 56 out of 59 seats. The party has always pushed for Scotland to berak away from the U.K., and their win meant that the issue of independence never really left British politics despite the 2014 referendum defeat.

In the Brexit referendum of 2016, the U.K. as a whole voted to leave the European Union, but Scotland voted to stay in. Sturgeon spotted this as an opportunity to advance the case for independence; she made a series of prominent demands of the U.K. government about its Brexit negotiating strategy. When they were mostly ignored, she announced in March a plan to hold a second referendum between autumn 2018 and spring 2019.

Why has Sturgeon backed down now?

On Tuesday, Sturgeon told Scotland's parliament that she would "reset" that plan. She still believes that the Scottish people should get a say on independence before the U.K. leaves the EU. But rather than pressing the start button on the process now, she would, she said, re-dedicate herself to trying to influence the shape of Brexit.

Sturgeon as good as admitted to the Scottish parliament that her party and other advocates for independence had failed to make a strong positive case to Scots in favor of leaving the U.K. She said that while she believed independence was "The best way to seize and fully realize our many opportunities" as a country, "We must persuade the majority in Scotland of that. We have not done that yet."

Opinion polls, by and large, back that up; support for staying in the U.K. hovers just over 50 percent in most surveys, while support for leaving is more like 40-45 percent.

Her opponents agree the the time has passed; Blair McDougall, who ran the campaign for Scotland to stay in the U.K. in 2014, told Newsweek back in March that he thought the economic case for independence was weaker now than when he had to fight against it. That's because of oil prices—the Scottish economy depends on oil and the price per barrel has collapsed globally since 2014.

Sturgeon also lost a high-stakes battle with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. May has refused to give her permission for Scotland to hold a referendum before the end of the Brexit process, and under British law, the PM in London must authorize the poll.

At the 2017 general election, held on June 8, May's Conservative Party, led in Scotland by the energetic campaigner Ruth Davidson, took 13 of Scotland's seats on an explicitly pro-U.K. platform, while the SNP's seat count dropped from 56 to 35. It has since been much harder for Sturgeon to make the case that Scotland overwhelmingly backs a new independence vote.

Will independence happen?

British politics is in a period of massive flux, and it's almost impossible to predict what might happen on this issue in the distant future.

But this is a significant blow for the independence movement, and makes Scotland leaving the U.K. in the near future far less likely.

There are signs that Sturgeon's SNP is losing popularity as interest in independence wanes—and the party also seems to have suffered from the voter disillusionment that befalls most governments. The SNP had held a majority in the Scottish parliament and was therefore in control of certain laws and spending, but in elections to the Scottish parliament in 2016, the party won but lost its overall majority.

Sturgeon's best bet now is to hope that anger and disaffection with Brexit grows to such an extent in Scotland that grassroots calls for independence genuinely grow. But if that happens, she needs to be ready with a compelling vision for Scottish voters.