Electoral Data Analysis Scotland & the EU ScotRef Westminster Mismanagement

SNP Referendum Bill could lead to surprising endgame on independence

After ten years in Government, the SNP are sitting on 44% of the vote in Scotland. They have a mandate for an independence referendum from an independence-majority Holyrood and SNP-majority Westminster.

As promised they have introduced legislation to allow the Scottish Parliament to hold an independence referendum. The First Minister has said late 2020 would be best and that the UK Government would be committing a “democratic outrage” which would be “utterly unsustainable” if they refused a section 30 order.  

Political pundits predict any new UK Prime Minister will simply say no to a section 30 order leaving the Scottish Government with a choice of holding an advisory referendum or seeking another mandate and asking again. But it’s just not that simple as the political environment is fluid. Westminster is in chaos and support for independence and the SNP is only likely to rise, especially if Brexit goes ahead. The Brexit Party winning the EU election in the rest of the UK and flying high in Westminster polls makes Brexit almost impossible to stop without the entire Westminster political system imploding.  

Now walking straight into the SNPs “democratic outrage” trap the Conservative leadership candidates are lining up to announce, in absolute terms, that they will not allow a referendum on independence, thus feeding the democratic deficit argument. It’s a well-planned tactic I suggested in my newspaper column and on this site a year ago.

The Conservatives are about to choose a new leader and this is why it stops being so simple. The new Conservative leader must command a majority of party support when they replace May or we are heading for a general election (GE). That means they have to convince the DUP and keep the Conservative remainers onside. May has shown that they can’t do both. 

Forcing May to step down before a Brexit deal was reached, which would have given the new leader a clean sheet, demonstrates that they are no more aware of the scale of the task ahead of them than she was.

There is no one that can hold the Tories together but there is a candidate who could win an election by bringing back the Brexit vote – so PM Boris Johnson looks likely and so does a No Deal Brexit. 

A GE before October 31, 2019, looks probable scenario and this changes everything for the SNP.  Remember 2017? The SNP pushed for a referendum, May said “now is not the time” and called a snap GE. I predicted that having led their troops up the hill, the SNP had a choice: go all out for independence or face big SNP losses because the SNP vote needs to be motivated by progress towards independence.

Nicola Sturgeon has raised expectations again and if another GE is called she has zero choice but to make it about independence. Thus any snap GE becomes a pseudo-referendum (in Scotland) but with a twist – it will be about the right to have a referendum on independence if Brexit occurs against our wishes. It will be about an undeniable mandate and that, in my opinion, will need to contain four fairly radical elements. 

If the SNP win a majority then: 

1) They have the right to call a referendum at the time of Scottish Parliaments choosing

2) If the UK leaves the EU they will call a referendum

3) Thereafter if the UK still refuses a section 30, they have the right to declare independence before Brexit and immediately begin negotiations on independence from the UK and on continuing EU membership (Scotland never having left) and with EFTA to maintain single market membership to cover all options.

4) If Brexit is cancelled, Westminster chaos ensues and the Scottish people decide they want independence (Sco Government official polling), then they get a referendum. 

Point 3 is the surprise that might change everything, high stakes poker yes, but a section 30 offer is highly likely with that in the mandate. 

YouGov today has published a poll on Westminster voting intentions with the Lib Dems leading on 24%, the Brexit Party on 22% and Labour and the Conservatives on 19% each which would mean a five-way hung parliament. 

In Scotland, the subsample has the SNP on 44% and the Lib Dems on 11% behind Labour on 12% and the Tories in second place on 19%.  That indicates that the SNP would win 57 seats and the Lib Dems two, wiping out both Ruth Davidson’s team and Labour.  

You might think the unionist parties would simply join together and stand under a Better Together banner – except that would be illegal. It’s called working together – they can’t stand in the same UK election as different parties in the rest of the UK and as an alliance in Scotland.

Tactical voting would be the unionist option to harness the no Vote but that would mean that asking Tory voters to vote for Corbyn for PM and Labour voters possibly for Boris Johnson as PM. The Lib Dems would have trouble voting for anyone who would go through with Brexit and if you didn’t involve Brexit Party they would stand alone and mop up the pro-Brexit votes.

Swathes of Labour voters, smaller amounts of Lib Dems and even remainer Tory voters would consider voting SNP and accepting the inevitable to stay in the EU. In a referendum Yes needs 51% for a majority, in a GE 40% delivers a super majority. So the FM gets her impossible-to-resist mandate for a referendum and her timeline that political commentators said was just power play and not realistic, suddenly makes sense. 

Now obviously Brexit could still be stopped. However, the inevitable ensuing chaos combined with the emerging possibility of Nigel Farage as the future PM (under those circumstances) still gives Scotland a route to independence. The Lib Dems and Labour will also offer federalism but they can’t deliver that as the rest of the UK would have to vote for it, not just Scotland, so it’s going to get messier still.  

Democracy seems to be the way we choose the person to fire when things go wrong. A snap Westminster election will be how the UK chooses the person Scotland’s voters will fire when they finally decide to believe in themselves.

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About the author

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp is the Founder and Chief Executive of Business for Scotland. Before becoming CEO of Business for Scotland Gordon ran a business strategy and social media, sales & marketing consultancy.

With a degree in business, marketing and economics, Gordon has worked as an economic development planning professional, and in marketing roles specialising in pricing modelling and promotional evaluation for global companies (including P&G).

Gordon benefits (not suffers) from dyslexia, and is a proponent of the emerging New Economics School. Gordon contributes articles to Business for Scotland, The National and Believe in Scotland.


  • Aug 22nd: It looks like Boris Johnson is hoping to see brexit over the line on 31st October even if that is by no deal as default?
    …Remain MP’s and MPs against no deal will obviously try to stop that and a possible scenario will be via bringing down the govt in a no confidence vote…but Boris Johnson would then according to latest polls hope to win with a pro brexit majority, even if slim, so the end game is that he intends to implement brexit by any means if in power.
    If the uk leaves on 31/10/19 scot gov will surely formally request a new referendum definitively or risk apathy and support loss?
    Or will they wait further to see polls shift more?…but risky to wait also.

    (presuming we haven’t had a general election before leaving the eu – in which snp campaign on an indy ref policy)

  • Good article, but there’s a few things we need to factor in here:

    – I was in a significant minority who predicted a Cameron win in 2015, because of two things; firstly ‘the Kinnock Factor’ that saw middle England wavering voters opt for the Tories in 1992, against all odds, would rear its head again with Miliband. Secondly, the UKIP support (they were regularly polling 17-20%) would vote tactically due to the unfair FPTP system, to make sure they got their coveted EU referendum. Miliband ruled out holding one, so the Tories were ultimately destined to benefit from UKIP support – alas, they finished on about 12%, because around a third of their polled support tactically switched.

    – I foresee a similar scenario if/when another GE is called before Brexit, with Farage’s support once again being kingmakers. I think they will vote tactically (likely for the next Tory PM) to ensure Brexit goes ahead, or they will unleash further horrors on the political landscape.

    – The Lib Dems, far from undergoing a major revival in Scotland, have a day of reckoning ahead of them. They always insisted they were the most pro-European of the major parties. While it’s lamentable that the mainstream media let them campaign unchallenged in recent elections to “keep Scotland in both unions”, that will soon be exposed as folly and they will have to choose which of the two Unions they like best; if they are as pro-EU as they always claimed, then they (at least the Scottish party) would have to back independence in Europe. Conversely, if they follow the tired Wee Willie Renkie line and double down on their ‘UK at all costs’ path, then their bluff will have been called and they will ultimately be little more than Poundshop Tories.

    • If Brexit happens the Brexit party vote will go mostly back to Conservatives as that is where it came from. If Brexit is stopped then Brexit Party will come second in % share of the vote but win the most seats in a GE. UKIP vote collapsed in 2015 as Cameron triangulated their reason for existence by offering the referendum – so the next Conservative leader has to make Brexit happen or the conservatives will be wiped out.

      • You seem to agree with most of my analysis. Do you draw the same conclusion as myself then, when I say the cat is out of the bag and isn’t going back in? In other words, I’m saying that we need to accept that, sooner or later and by hook or by crook, England/rUK WILL be leaving the EU and that, far from the “stop Brexit” strategy employed in recent times, the SNP (and the other main parties in Scotland) need to plan for this?

        Also, what is your take on my point about the Lib Dems? Rennie and Swindon are BritNat-lite, but If I recall correctly, the party’s youth leader in Scotland made a public speech a while back, saying he backs independence in Europe. Will that sway party policy, or will they remain Poundshop Tories? I will also be interested to see what Labour for Independence will achieve, amidst the backdrop of Leonard, Baillie et al.

        Your valued thoughts would be welcomed.

        • It seems likely that pro-European Unionists will not vote Conservative or Labour and so the unionist vote will be split and The tactical voting that took seats from the SNP last time will not work any more. Essentially Lib Dems may take a seat or two more in Scotland but at the expense of a Labour and Conservative wipe out.

  • I wouldn’t assume that the next Westminster government will be Tory led.
    Even if Boris gets the PM job his image is much tarnished since the days of his regular appearances on HIGNFY and hanging from zip-lines.

    The current Lib-Dem surge seems most prevalent in England. In the EU elections they came fourth in Wales behind The BP, Plaid Cymru and Labour; and, of course third in Scotland – with less than half the vote of the SNP.
    This would also indicate that their support in England is higher than their average poll result across the UK.
    It’s possible that once an election polarises the vote towards the top opposition party in the polls then more Labour members in England might vote LD to keep the Tories out.

    So it is likely that the Lib-Dems would have a significant number of MPs in England.

    So where does this leave us?

    After their disastrous fall from grace following their last coalition with the Tories it is unlikely that the Lib-Dems will try that again.
    The SNP and Plaid Cymru will probably have about 62 seats between them.
    Throw into the mix a couple of Greens from England and perhaps a couple of Alliance seats in NI.

    As a consequence :-
    You might get a LD government.
    You might get a LD government with a slim majority that will need need SNP/PC support.
    You might end up with a ‘rainbow alliance’ .
    Or you might get a Labour Party that would sell its soul (and Scotland) to get Corbyn into number 10.
    All these would work in your favour.

    Just don’t forget your friends in Wales when you go.

  • So the United kingdom leaves the European union and snp get independence. If they then become a part of the European union how do they propose dealing with the border issue between England and Scotland?
    Surely it’s the same issue as northern Ireland isn’t it? And if there is an answer to that then surely we can sort out the hard border issue now…simple

    • Absolutely not Philip totally different — the Good Friday agreement provides a legal framework that says there cannot be any impediment to trade on the island of Ireland – if Brexit causes a hard border then there is an all Ireland poll on unification built into the agreement. That is why the DUP don’t want it — so put the border in the Irish sea but any impediment to trade between members of the Union and the Act of Union is broken — none and I mean absolutely none of those issues are the same.

      A No Deal Brexit would damage trade between the UK and the rest of the world and the rUK and an independent Scotland but the RUK economy will head towards depression and people will be queuing for food anyway — a customs union Brexit or single market membership Brexit means no impediment to trade between independent Scotland and RUK and so that would be the best of both worlds.

      • Wouldn’t a border in the Irish Sea (i.e. a different customs regime between Northern Ireland and Great Britain) be illegal according to the Treaty of Union of 1801?

    • There is no border issue between Scotland and England. It would operate like any other border in this world. The Ireland border is entirely different.

      • However the rules governing this would be controlled by the EU and open to veto by any member. This would bring us straight back to your democracy deficit.
        Gordon, England is our major importer, furthermore our logistics infrastructure (ports, etc) is not able to support our needs if bypassing England is forced by members of EU (Macron or whoever follows could be a problem here in particular). How do you suggest Scotland out of UK and in EU is in any way feasible and not at the mercy of any veto the EU decide?
        Seems like the SNP and yourself make a lot of assumptions on no deal brexit failure and are betting the house on this. Good luck. I was very much for independence but not so now (independence at any cost it seems)

    • The U.K. Government already confirmed that the Common Travel Area, of GB and Ireland, would continue so there is no problem for individuals crossing a Scottish border – the issue is around goods. The Scottish Border is 1/3 the length of the N.Irish one with only 10% of the crossings and, importantly, no one is likely to attack infrastructure which means you can use all the tech the Tories talk about to your hearts content – CCTV, NPR cameras and ‘Smart’ Gates!

    • It’s not the same issue. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but we haven’t been killing each other.
      It will just be a border. What’s difficult about that?

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