Independence debate dominates in Scotland on election eve

Nicole Sturgeon's Scottish National Party continues to dominate, despite being on the losing side in the 2014 referendum, and is pushing for a second independence vote (AFP Photo/Andy Buchanan) (AFP)

Edinburgh (AFP) - Scottish nationalists like to portray their nation as a progressive European outpost removed from right-wing politics, but Thursday's general election could put that view to the test.

While the campaign battle elsewhere in Britain is largely between Conservative Theresa May's right-wing hard Brexit stance and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's leftist socialist agenda, things in Scotland look rather different.

Independence remains the defining issue -- nearly three years after Scotland voted by 55 percent to remain a part of the United Kingdom.

The pro-independence Scottish National Party continues to dominate, despite being on the losing side in the 2014 referendum, and is pushing for a second independence vote, probably in spring 2019 -- before Britain actually exits from the European Union.

In last June's referendum on EU membership, Scottish voters by 62 percent chose to remain in the bloc. So SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has also proposed a "compromise" which would respect the results of both referendums and keep Scotland in the UK and in the EU.

This would grant Scotland a special status within the EU, enabling it to remain in the European single market even as the rest of Britain leaves.

"We know Theresa May doesn't just want to take the UK out of the European Union, but she's intent on pursuing an extreme Brexit that will take us out of the single market as well," Sturgeon told AFP.

"By backing those compromise proposals in this election, we can make sure that Scotland's voice is heard, and that jobs and investment in Scotland is protected," she said.

But ultimately, Sturgeon believes Scotland should have another vote on independence.

"Scotland must have a choice about our future, a choice between following the UK down the Brexit path or becoming an independent country."

- 'Damaging to Scotland' -

For the SNP's opponents, Sturgeon’s "compromise" would be just as bad as independence.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson told AFP: "The differentiated deal that Nicola Sturgeon put forward... was damaging to Scotland because it would break up the UK internal market, which is worth four times more in terms of trade and five times more in terms of jobs to Scotland than the EU."

The Conservative message appears to be resonating in some parts of Scotland, particularly along the border with England and in the rural Highlands.

The Tories have emerged as the foremost defenders of the British union, with even some previously unshakeable Labour supporters willing to lend them their votes to squeeze out the SNP.

However, talk of a great right-wing unionist revival in Scotland may be premature, with opinion polls suggesting the nationalist bandwagon will be dented but not derailed.

Most polls suggest the SNP will win around 50 seats in the London parliament -- slightly down from their near clean sweep of 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in the last general election in 2015.

The Conservatives are expected to be the biggest beneficiaries rising from one seat to seven.

- Independence resistance -

Nicola McEwen, professor of politics at Edinburgh University, said Davidson has gone "some way to detoxifying the Tory brand in Scotland".

"It's worth remembering that in the 2015 UK general election the Conservatives in Scotland polled their worst ever result," McEwen said in an election podcast for the Centre on Constitutional Change.

"If the Conservatives make significant gains in Scotland they may well feel quite empowered or bolstered in their resistance to a second independence referendum."

She said Labour were more "ambiguous" on independence.

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale once said she might turn her back on the UK to keep Scotland in Europe -- comments she has since vehemently disavowed.

Corbyn as head of the national Labour Party has said that a second independence referendum would be "absolutely fine" if Scotland wants one.

The Conservatives have exploited this ambiguity to warn of a "coalition of chaos" between Labour and the SNP, resurrecting their vote-winning rhetoric from 2015 in which Corbyn's predecessor Ed Miliband was portrayed as being in the SNP's pocket.

But Labour has accused the SNP of refusing to use its devolved income tax powers to target the rich and calling for a cut in corporation tax.

Dugdale told AFP: "We’ve been very clear that we don't support a progressive alliance with the SNP because we don’t accept that they're progressive".

She added that "fundamentally, there is nothing progressive about trying to break up the United Kingdom."