What are the arguments for Scottish independence? Experts explain the reasons why Scotland would vote ‘Yes’

There’s a plethora of arguments in favour of independence. We take a look at the main ones

Nearly seven years after the first Scottish independence referendum, the debate surrounding whether the country should break away from the rest of the UK has only intensified.

Now that there is a larger pro-independence majority of MSPs in Holyrood, following the SNP’s fourth consecutive victory in the May election, independence has soared to the top of the agenda.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has told Boris Johnson that it is a matter of “when, not if” a second referendum takes place during the new parliamentary term.

The debate surrounding Scottish independence has only intensified in the last few years (Graphic: Mark Hall/JPI Medial)The debate surrounding Scottish independence has only intensified in the last few years (Graphic: Mark Hall/JPI Medial)
The debate surrounding Scottish independence has only intensified in the last few years (Graphic: Mark Hall/JPI Medial)

Meanwhile, Westminster has indicated that it will not grant the legal powers the Scottish Government needs to hold “indyref2”, as ministers insist focus should instead be on recovery from the Covid crisis.

But as the debate turns to whether or not a second vote will be held, it is easy to forget what really matters: the arguments which form both the “Yes” and “No” sides.

Here, experts explain what the main arguments for independence are.

What are the arguments for independence?

Experts explain the main arguments for independence (Graphic: Kim Mogg)Experts explain the main arguments for independence (Graphic: Kim Mogg)
Experts explain the main arguments for independence (Graphic: Kim Mogg)

There are broadly two types of argument for independence, James Mitchell professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh explains.

“One is the classic nationalist argument that a nation ought to govern itself regardless of other considerations,” he says.

“There are people who feel that being governed by a party elected for the whole of the UK means that Scottish views and interests are all too often ignored.”

Prof Mitchell says this view tends to emerge strongly when the party in power in Westminster has little support in Scotland, like when the Conservatives have won UK elections.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has told Boris Johnson that it is a matter of 'when, not if' a second referendum takes place (Getty Images)First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has told Boris Johnson that it is a matter of 'when, not if' a second referendum takes place (Getty Images)
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has told Boris Johnson that it is a matter of 'when, not if' a second referendum takes place (Getty Images)

“It is no coincidence that support for independence has been strongest when the Tories have been in office,” he says.

Echoing his point is Michael Keating, professor of politics at Aberdeen University.

“There’s an argument in principle that Scotland should make its own policy decisions, and the more practical argument that it has been subjected to policies it hasn’t voted for because constantly it's getting Conservative governments,” he says.

“It all starts from the idea that Scotland as a nation can decide on its own fate, make decisions for itself and run its own affairs.”

Meanwhile, the other pro-independence argument focuses on Scotland needing “distinct policies, preferences and priorities” that could only be realised if it were to break away from the UK.

There’s the economic argument that the country could do better on its own as a small European country, Prof Keating says.

Supporters of independence would like to see Scotland have control over its own spending, as well as its natural resources, like oil.

And some want it to have the power to make its own decisions about social policy - like migration - which it is currently unable to do as it is reserved to Westminster.

Prof Mitchell adds: “Others believe that an independent Scotland would reject right-wing policies and pursue a more left-wing agenda.”

But often the argument simply comes down to what people believe in.

“People tend to decide whether they’re in favour of independence, and then look at technical arguments,” Prof Keating explains.

“Then there are those specific issues on which people might focus.

“It’s related to identity as well - whether you feel more British or Scottish.”

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What difference did Brexit make?

For many, Brexit was seen as a heavily polarised argument about Britishness, and the issue has, undoubtedly, added fuel to the independence fire.

Some argue that as Scotland wanted to remain in the EU, with 62% being in favour of staying during the 2016 referendum, this could only be achieved if it became an individual state.

And the SNP has consistently claimed that, due to Brexit, “circumstances have changed” since the last independence vote.

Prof Mitchell calls Brexit the “key change” when it comes to the current arguments for an independent Scotland.

“It highlights the divergence in attitudes in Scotland and UK on EU membership, suggesting Scotland is being ignored and wants a different future,” he explains.

In the past, being pro-independence, pro-Europe and voting for the SNP were all separate things, but, according to surveys in recent years, these beliefs have all merged together to a much greater extent, according to Prof Keating.

Joining the EU is top of the SNP’s agenda, with Ms Sturgeon believing that the country would thrive if it were to be welcomed back into the bloc.

Dr Kirsty Hughes, director and founder of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, says it would be relatively straightforward for an independent Scotland to join.

“People sometimes look at the stumbling blocks and not the things that are positive, like the fact that we were in the EU for so long should make it relatively easy to join,” she says.

And when it comes to the benefits of becoming an EU member state, there are all sorts of pluses, she argues, from the single market, closer police and criminal cooperation and the Erasmus scheme to the free movement of people, foreign and security policy and tackling climate change.

All this would be “very beneficial to the Scottish economy”, Dr Hughes says.

What questions still need to be answered on the ‘Yes’ side?

There is still a lot of work to be done by both sides if another referendum were to take place, the academics agree.

The pro-independence side needs to focus on public services and how Scotland would pay for them as an independent country, Prof Keating argues.

He also points to what currency an independent Scotland would use, an issue that became prominent and heavily debated during the 2014 referendum.

Ms Sturgeon has said, if people were to vote in favour of independence, the country would stick to using the pound before switching to its own national currency.

But critics retaliate by saying that the EU may not be willing to accept Scotland continuing to use the pound.

Yet Dr Hughes thinks the currency problem is exaggerated within the EU context and is “not as big a stumbling block as some of the anti-independence arguments make out”.

“It's relatively unprecedented having a country trying to join using the currency of a third country so the EU would have to consider how to deal with that.

“My thought is, as long as there’s a clear path to the introduction of a new currency, then there may well be a willingness on the EU’s side.”

There are also questions about the “hard border” that would be created with England if Scotland were to join the EU.

Opponents of independence claim such a border would be problematic as there would have to be customs checks and regulations brought in, making trade difficult between Scotland and England.

Dr Hughes says the First Minister should be putting her alternative arguments about the border issue out there now.

She argues: “The benefits of independence aren't just about looking at the cost of putting up a border with England and taking it down to the EU - it’s about the whole lot.

“We should be having this debate but we’re not, as Nicola Sturgeon said in the election campaign she would bring that case forward later.

“But if you’re not going to make the argument it’s going to look like you’ve got more trade with the rest of the UK and there are going to be costs.

“It’s all there to be argued for, and I think alternative arguments can be plausibly made.”

Indeed, despite the blanks needing to be filled before a potential second referendum takes place, the case for independence is “much stronger than it used to be”, Prof Mitchell says, “in terms of allowing the country more autonomy to pursue its own priorities, policies and preferences”.

But he draws attention to the fact that many people already have settled views that are unlikely to change - so, ultimately, it will come down to those who are neither strongly in favour or against independence.

“It seems likely at this stage that the result would be close. Public opinion is currently pretty equally divided, with some slight advantages for one side over the other shifting, and so the outcome is difficult to predict.

“A referendum today or soon would be a massive gamble for each side.”