Will Scotland defy Cameron? | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 15.05.2015
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Will Scotland defy Cameron?

Following David Cameron's UK election victory, he will desperately want to avoid another vote on Scottish independence. Clashes with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon are inevitable, writes Peter Geoghegan from Glasgow.

In 1995, then Labour shadow secretary for Scotland, George Robertson, predicted that "devolution will kill nationalism stone dead." Two years later, Scots voted overwhelmingly for a devolved parliament in Edinburgh - but far from ending demands for Scottish independence, the clamor to leave the United Kingdom has grown in the almost two decades since.

Last year Scots voted "no" to independence in a referendum, but on May 7 the Scottish National Party (SNP) won all but three of the 59 Scottish seats at the UK parliament in Westminster. The scale of the victory - the SNP went into the general election with just six seats - has left many questioning once more the likelihood of the break-up of Britain.

On Friday Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who won a surprise majority in last week's general election, met with Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh for the first time since the election. The two leaders agreed on the need to swiftly transfer more powers to Edinburgh's devolved parliament but there was disagreement on whether Scotland should be granted full fiscal autonomy.

Cameron's insistence earlier this week that he would not countenance another referendum brought a sharp rebuke from Ms Sturgeon. The Scottish First Minister said she was "not planning" to hold another ballot but refused to rule it out, saying it was up to the people of Scotland to ­decide.

David Cameron

A fight on his hands

Another vote?

Many of the SNP's 100,000-plus membership - the vast majority signed up since September's referendum defeat - are now calling for another vote on leaving the UK in the next term of Scotland's devolved parliament.

"I suspect the SNP manifesto (for the 2016 Scottish elections) will include some sort of broad commitment to a second referendum; something that leaves the possibility of holding a second referendum open without locking the party into a fixed timetable," says the New Statesman's Jamie Maxwell.

"That said, Nicola Sturgeon will only hold another referendum if she is confident she will win. I suspect 60 percent is an important number here. If polls consistently suggest, over a number of months or even years, that upward of 60 percent of Scots support independence and want another referendum, the SNP will take the gamble. But the stakes are high. A second defeat would take independence off the table for a very long time."

Such a clear majority in favor of independence still seems a long way off. Despite the SNP's success on May 7, polls suggest a majority of Scots remain in favor of the union.

Economic benefits

Uncertainties about the economy and European Union membership were key factors in last year's referendum result.

three people holding a flag copyright: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

They will need convincing that a "Yes" vote is right for Scotland

"Any future 'Yes' campaign would need to do a better job of convincing people of the benefits, mainly economic, of independence," says Mark Diffley, Scotland's research director of Ipsos-Mori, a market research organization. "I'm personally not convinced that they would win another referendum without winning those arguments."

But a Conservative government in London pushing through right-wing policies with almost no mandate north of the border - the Tories hold just one seat in left-leaning Scotland - could feed support for leaving the UK.

"In Parliament the SNP will have no direct influence, but will use it as a means by which to increase support and demonstrate how inflexible the 'Westminster system' is. Lots of noise and fury, but a sustained five-year pro-independence and anti-Westminster PR campaign," says Scottish political analyst David Torrance.

The Scottish National Party has built its success on a "gradualist" strategy that has steadily worked toward independence over the last two decades. The nationalists are unlikely to rush another referendum, although there might be good reasons to move quickly.

"This may not last forever, the SNP surge and ascendancy, it is about whether they try to strike now or whether they need to do more work on convincing people if they would be better off," says Mark Diffley.

The SNP's stunning victory on May 7 was founded on appealing to those who voted "no" in the referendum as well as independence supporters.

Defending Scottish interests

"The SNP has always relied on voters who may not be in favor of independence voting for them," says Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University. "The SNP have been good in recent years at separating the cause of independence out from the particular issues prevalent in that election. Clearly 50 percent of the electorate like what they've seen and feel the SNP are in the best position to defend Scottish interests at Westminster."

a house with flags on it

The SNP could move quickly on another independence vote

While many Scots would like to remain in the union, they also want more powers for the Edinburgh parliament. Some unionists, including in the Conservative party, have argued that a federal solution can be found to the Scottish question. While Cameron has agreed to transfer more powers to Scotland, Paul Cairney, professor of politics at Stirling University, believes hopes of a radical new constitutional settlement are unlikely to be fulfilled.

"I think they might call something federalism, but it would be a weird quasi-federalism without a written constitution, without formal subnational influence on federal government, without anything similar to the English regions. They should do it properly with a constitutional convention but I doubt they will."

Jamie Maxwell says that two decades on, history is proving that those who warned that devolution would be a slippery slope to independence are being proved right.

"Cameron could make a last ditch attempt to buy the Scots off with more powers, but every time a new offer is made it is quickly superseded, and Scotland takes another step toward the exit door. Before devolution, unionist diehards argued that devolution had a logic and a momentum of its; that it would, eventually, destroy the Union. That analysis is becoming increasingly hard to dispute."

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