Scottish power-sharing deal brings independence referendum a step closer

By on 24/08/2021 | Updated on 24/08/2021
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has been calling for a new independence referendum since the Brexit vote. Pic by Scottish Government

A second Scottish independence referendum has come a step closer, following the formation of an alliance between the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Scottish Green Party Parliamentary Group to push for another independence poll and action on climate change.

The two parties have reportedly been in talks since national elections in May, at which the SNP secured 64 seats – putting it one seat short of an absolute majority in the 129-seat Scottish Parliament. The deal is being touted as a co-operation agreement rather than a coalition, according to news site Politico.

The agreement gives the SNP the votes to pass legislation for a second referendum on becoming independent from the UK, with the Greens’ eight seats providing a total of 72. However, the Scottish government cannot legally hold a referendum without the approval of Boris Johnson’s UK government: issues relating to the “Union of Scotland and England” are reserved for the UK administration, which has argued that the 2014 referendum – presented as a “once in a generation opportunity” by the SNP – should have settled the matter for years to come.

Trouble on the horizon

In that referendum, the idea was opposed by 55% of voters. However, the SNP argues that the UK’s departure from the EU changes the landscape: 62% of Scots voted Remain. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, the UK government has further angered Scottish nationalists by unilaterally amending the Scottish Parliament’s powers on three occasions without its consent, most controversially through the UK Internal Market Bill – which ensures that EU powers over matters such as food standards and labelling return to the UK administration rather than the devolved governments.

Following a successful referendum vote in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP and Greens could take their case to the High Court. Even if they won the case, Johnson’s UK administration could pass legislation to block a referendum – but the Tories’ dependence on UK legislative powers to control the shape of Brexit and stifle the Scottish government’s demands for a referendum appear to be driving up popular support for independence, making the unionist position ever harder to sustain over the long term.

However, the SNP has its own internal schisms over its independence strategy, with some nationalists arguing that Sturgeon’s approach is too cautious: her predecessor as SNP leader, Alex Salmond, launched a new party to challenge the SNP in the 2021 election – though the Alba Party failed to secure any seats, winning just 2.3% of the vote in the North East Scotland region.

Greens and yellows

Under the new deal, two Green Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) will be nominated to be Scottish government ministers. It represents the first move of the Green Party into government in Scotland, which will host the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November.

The parties have agreed a shared draft policy programme, which focuses on tackling climate change, reducing poverty and inequality, and economic recovery from COVID-19.

The draft programme also includes setting up two new Scottish Government overseas offices in Warsaw and Copenhagen, in order to promote Scotland’s interests in central Europe and the Nordic countries.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “Today’s politics can too often feel small – polarised, divided and incapable of meeting the moment – and this agreement is intended to change that in Scotland. It is about doing politics and governance better to find the solutions needed to solve the problems confronting the world today.

“The spirit of co-operation and consensus-building is very much in keeping with the founding principles of our Scottish Parliament. We do not agree on everything, but we are coming out of our comfort zones to focus on what we do agree on,” she said.

The Scottish Government has also set up a new group of international experts to advise it on environmental issues, including considering international best practice.

The First Minister’s Environment Council will be co-chaired by Sturgeon and the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser professor Sir Ian Boyd, and will also include academics, wildlife experts and Julia Slingo, former chief scientist of UK weather forecasting service the Met Office.

The group will meet regularly to discuss biodiversity, marine resources, waste, jobs in the green economy, and how boosting nature can contribute to tackling climate change. It will present proposed work areas in a report at the UN climate talks, COP26.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

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