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This Is How The Scottish Independence Debate Has Changed Since 2014

Two years on from Scotland's referendum, and in the wake of the UK voting to leave the EU, the debate on the country's independence is far from settled.

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Two years on from Scotland's referendum, the country is already facing the prospect of another vote on its independence after the UK opted to leave the EU – but senior campaign figures have told BuzzFeed News the debate on the country's future has rapidly moved on since 2014.

While the debate two years ago focused largely on whether Scotland would be better off as an independent country or not, the sudden collapse in oil revenues since late 2014 has "heavily dented" the argument that Scotland would be wealthier, according to oil economists who voted Yes last time round.

The case for independence has instead been reinvigorated by Scots having voted to remain in the EU while the UK as a whole chose to leave, which showcased like never before the political differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK – and any future referendum is certain to revolve around EU membership.

"It’s just about the clearest possible demonstration of the different directions of travel between Scotland and the rest of the UK," Blair Jenkins, the director of the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign in 2014, told BuzzFeed News on the anniversary of the first vote.

"It’s the most stark example imaginable of two countries who have a different sense of their destiny, and it's provided a very good reason to have another referendum much sooner than I ever thought was possible."

Immediately after the EU referendum results revealed that every area in Scotland had voted Remain, polls showed a remarkable spike in favour of independence – with some reaching as high as 59%. On the day after the vote, first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced she'd explore all options to keep Scotland in the EU and said a second independence referendum was "highly likely".

However, since it became clear that prime minister Theresa May would postpone the activation of Article 50 – which would begin the two-year process of the UK leaving the EU – until next year, figures inside the SNP have downplayed talk of a snap referendum on independence as they want to wait until it's clear what deal the UK will secure.

"Nicola needs an outline from the EU of broad approval of Scottish membership, and what the path would be for continuing membership," suggested Jenkins. "Once Theresa May invokes Article 50 and clarifies the UK’s negotiating position, and the EU clarify theirs, by the time we get to September next year Nicola should be in a position to call a referendum for spring 2018."

There are fears within the SNP that the Brexit vote hasn't translated to as big a breakout in support for independence as hoped. At the launch event of the party's "national survey" on independence earlier this month, a senior SNP source admitted that, after initial confidence in June, they are now unsure whether the Brexit vote will add to or detract from Yes support.

While the SNP is hopeful Brexit will win over pro-European Scots who rejected independence in 2014, they also fear that those gains could essentially be cancelled out by anti-European Scots who voted Yes. The party has put together the "national survey", open to all Scottish voters, to clarify how attitudes to independence have shifted in the wake of 23 June.


Mark Diffley, the director of polling firm Ipsos-MORI Scotland, explained there had been a significant spike in support for independence after the shock of the Brexit vote but, worryingly for the SNP's hopes for another referendum, said that support has quickly faded away in subsequent months.

"The initial spike after the [2014] referendum didn’t materialise into anything other than that," Diffley told BuzzFeed News. "That’s what we’ve seen after the European referendum too – one poll on the weekend after it had a 59% Yes support. Immediately after the independence referendum and the European referendum you had these short-lived spikes, but it seems they were just an immediate reaction to an event."

As they wait for it to become clear what Brexit means for independence, Yes campaigners are confident they have gained one new and very clear argument since 2014 – what Sturgeon has called the "decision of the Labour party to press the self-destruct button".

At the launch of the national survey, Sturgeon said Jeremy Corbyn's ineffectual leadership of Labour risked decades of Conservative rule in the UK – a prospect that the SNP believes Scottish voters will baulk at.

"Labour is in a state of utter chaos and collapse. It's shown itself completely unable to oppose, let alone govern," said Sturgeon. "Not a single serious commentator thinks they can win a general election. There is now the very possibility that we are witnessing the end of Labour as a force to be reckoned with in British politics. Perhaps the end of the Labour party full stop."

If an independence referendum takes place in the next few years, it is likely to be largely a battle between Ruth Davidson's Conservatives and Sturgeon's SNP, while Kezia Dugdale's Scottish Labour party and the UK parties are expected to have much less of an influence than they did two years ago.

In the run-up to May's Scottish election, Davidson positioned herself as the proudly pro-UK alternative to the SNP and displaced Labour as Scotland's second biggest party. This week the Scottish Tory leader set up a "task force" to help make the case for Scotland to remain part of the union in the wake of the Brexit vote.

A member of the task force, Ian Duncan MEP, told BuzzFeed News he believes it's too soon to tell what impact the European debate will have on a second independence referendum. However, he said the main difference from 2014 is that the economic case for independence will be easier for the pro-Union side to argue against.

"I think the case for independence is weaker than it was in 2014, and I would argue that’s mainly because of oil," said Duncan. "During the referendum much was made of oil either directly with people in the SNP saying there would be another oil bonanza, or indirectly in the argument that the oil industry was just a bonus for Scotland's economy rather than a necessity.

"But the one issue everyone understood from the Yes side was that there was money in the North Sea and it was ours, and now that money simply isn’t there. To my mind, that will be the big issue for independence supporters this time round."

However, Duncan said the whole independence debate has moved on to "new terrain" in the wake of the Brexit vote and admitted the electoral map from 23 June's referendum had gifted a strong visual argument to the Yes side.

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"The nationalists now see this as a clear distinction north and south of the border and, if you just look at the voting maps, it’s easy to argue there is a huge difference," said the MEP. "Though, of course, that map conceals a great deal as many Yes voters believe in the old mantra that for independence to be meaningful it has to be both from Westminster and Brussels.

"The problem for Nicola Sturgeon is that the outcome of the Brexit vote for Scotland is not actually clear. The day after the referendum we all thought the Earth has moved – and it has – but it’s not clear in what way and what it means for Scotland and the independence argument."

Whether or not she calls a second referendum will be Sturgeon's biggest political gamble, and her previous condition of having support for independence reach 60% in polls for a year looks unlikely to be achieved, according to Diffley, meaning the first minister would run the risk of a devastating second defeat.

"I don’t think anything will change until there’s another campaign or the Brexit negotiations start to tell us what will happen after we leave," he said. "This talk of 60% for a year or more, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen really. That’s an unrealistically high barrier to set yourself."

The pro-union side is confident that a second referendum defeat would leave the independence cause in tatters, and that Sturgeon is now in the unenviable position of having told her activists another vote is "highly likely" but without the expected boost in support after the Leave vote.

"I’m sure there will be another referendum, but the real question is will they do it without knowing they’ll win it?" said Duncan. "A canny politician would say no, look at the Quebec situation where a second defeat all but killed the movement. My gut feeling is Nicola Sturgeon is now in the worst of all positions – damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t."

However, despite the lack of clarity over what Brexit means for the independence cause, Jenkins is confident that the Yes side would go on to victory in a second referendum due to the relative strength of the movement compared with when he started leading the cause in 2012.

"We start this time from somewhere between 45% and 50%, so it’s a much, much stronger starting point," said Jenkins. "The other thing that’s changed is that the Yes movement is much broader and deeper then 2012, and we know what works now – we learned a lot about the tone and what persuades people and engages people.

"Put together the strength of the movement, the strength of support, and link all that with the stunning difference in the outcome of the European vote and the disappearance of Labour as a credible UK government. When you put all that together I very strongly believe we would win a second independence referendum."

On the second anniversary of the historic independence referendum, it seems the question of Scotland's future is even less clear than it was on that morning in September 2014.

Jamie Ross is a Scotland reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Edinburgh.

Contact Jamie Ross at

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