How stable is the UK constitutional settlement?

The UK is currently in the unique situation of heading for a second major constitutional referendum in three years, with significant consequences for the make-up of the UK and its role in the world.

Last year’s Scottish independence referendum has kept the UK intact, but the vote has still produced significant change. On top of the significant new powers, particularly on tax raising, that will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament as part of the hastily agreed ‘Vow’ in the final days of the referendum campaign, the issue of Scottish independence itself remains firmly on the table.

We are yet to see exactly what next year’s SNP Holyrood election manifesto will say on the issue. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, knows that it would be foolish to push firmly for a second vote unless and until polling consistently shows a significant majority in favour of independence. Instead, the manifesto is more likely to outline certain ‘triggers’ that would invoke a demand for another vote.

The most obvious of these triggers concerns the outcome of the UK-wide referendum on the European Union (EU), making the two issues closely linked. Our research shows that a majority of Scots would support the First Minister in her assertion that “the demand for a second independence referendum would be probably unstoppable” if the UK votes to leave the EU while Scots opt to stay in.1http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/oct/16/nicola-sturgeon-new-scottish-referendum-probably-unstoppable-if-uk-votes-to-leave-eu

And that scenario is not beyond the realms of possibility. Across Britain, support to remain in the EU outweighs support to leave, but the gap has closed from 69% to 31% in June, to 57% to 43% in October. Meanwhile at this stage of the EU referendum campaign, Scots seem more content with the status quo, with the most recent polling showing the balance of opinion at around 2:1 in favour of the UK staying in the EU.2http://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/should-the-united-kingdom-remain-a-member-of-the-european-union-or-leave-the-eu#table

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We know from both the 1975 EU referendum and the Scottish independence referendum that opinion can shift dramatically as a result of campaigning. At the time that the Edinburgh Agreement was signed in 2012, kick-starting the independence referendum battle, support for ‘Yes’ was at 30%.3https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3058/Support-for-independence-continues-to-fall-as-Labour-narrows-gap-with-SNP.aspx This, of course, grew to 45% by the time of the vote itself.

It is therefore entirely possible that within two years the UK could be negotiating its way out of the EU, while facing the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum. As usual, there are uncertain times ahead.

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