The leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, has vowed to start the push for a second referendum on Scottish independence as her party made major gains in elections this weekend for Scotland’s devolved Parliament, but fell short by one seat of securing an overall majority.
Sturgeon is wasting no time in laying down the gauntlet to London. She told Britain’s ruling Conservatives not to pick a fight with the Scots and not to seek to obstruct an independence referendum she aims to hold before the end of 2023.
Hailing the election result as “historic,” and highlighting the fact that the SNP had won more votes and a higher share votes cast than any party since Scottish devolution in 1999, she said, “To any Westminster politician who tries to stand in the way of that, I would say you’re not picking a fight with the SNP, you’re picking a fight with the democratic wishes of the Scottish people.
“The only people who can decide the future of Scotland,” she added, “are the Scottish people, and no Westminster politician can or should stand in the way of that.”
Despite failing to secure an overall parliamentary majority, Sturgeon can count on the backing of the Scottish Greens, which will give her control of 72 seats in the 129-seat parliament, sufficient to pass legislation authorizing an independence plebiscite.
The Scottish Parliament oversees public services, education and policing north of the English border, but has no powers over defense and foreign affairs issues. Scots voted in 1997 to transfer some powers from the British Parliament in London.
The stage is now set for a monumental struggle between Edinburgh and London, one that could herald the breakup of the United Kingdom, which itself would have untold international repercussions for Britain, politicians and analysts say.
Buoyed by his own election triumph in local and regional government elections in England in which his ruling Conservatives routed the main opposition Labour Party in northern England and the Midlands, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for a summit with the leaders of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, saying the United Kingdom is “best served when we work together.”
Johnson has consistently expressed uncompromising opposition to holding yet another referendum on Scottish independence. The last plebiscite was held in 2014 when 55% voted to remain part of the U.K. Scotland remains evenly split now on the central issue of secession, according to opinion polls, although a slim majority in most recent surveys appear to back breaking away.
Brexit — Britain’s exit from the European Union — is seen as a key driver of support for the SNP. The Scots (and Northern Irish) never wanted to leave the EU and voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum to stay in the bloc, in Scotland’s case overwhelmingly by 62% to 30%.
Sturgeon has used Brexit to argue that Scotland should get another opportunity to hold a plebiscite on independence, nicknamed Indyref2.
Earlier this year Johnson said there should be a 40-year gap between the first and a second Scottish independence referendum — similar to the interval between British referendums on Europe in 1975 and 2016.
“Referendums in my experience, direct experience, in this country are not particularly jolly events,” he told the BBC. “They don’t have a notably unifying force in the national mood, they should be only once-in-a-generation,” he added.
The British parliament would have to endorse holding another referendum, according to constitutional lawyers. However, the SNP is exploring legal avenues, and a prolonged struggle in the courts and acrimonious political tussle is in the offing.
The SNP has steered clear of suggesting it would call a wildcat referendum along the lines of what Catalonian separatists did in Spain in 2017, which triggered a violent standoff between Madrid and Barcelona. Nationalists currently recognize that a nonlegal vote could easily be sabotaged by a boycott campaign the British government would almost certainly mount that would call on union-supporting Scots to ignore the vote.
Nonetheless, Britain seems likely to be thrust into another time-consuming and energy-sapping political and constitutional fight just as it is trying to plot a new diplomatic and trade course for itself in the wake of Brexit, analysts and U.S. diplomats say.
U.S. officials say privately they are concerned with the prospect of Britain, a key foreign-policy and defense ally, being preoccupied by more domestic upheaval. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is banking on London to assist it in strengthening Western democracy.
There are also Washington worries about the implications for Britain in the event that Scotland does break away.
A diminished Britain might struggle to keep its permanent U.N. Security Council seat and there are major questions about what would happen to Britain’s nuclear-armed submarines, based in Scotland.
Opponents of Scottish independence are seizing on the SNP’s failure to win an outright parliamentary majority to argue against Sturgeon’s aim of holding a second independence referendum.
“Her failure to win an overall majority reduces her ability to claim a mandate for a second independence referendum,” argued Sunday Times columnist Alex Massie.
“The SNP has won another battle, but the war goes on and the path to a fresh plebiscite on the national question is neither clear nor easy,” he wrote.
“The SNP strategy,” he added, “is clear and built for the long term: depict Boris Johnson as an ‘overlord’ and the unionist parties as ‘democracy deniers’ frustrating the manifest preferences of the Scottish people. This is, the nationalists suggest, less an argument about the merits of independence than one about basic democratic principles.”
Speaking on Britain’s Sky News, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, would not say whether the British government would challenge in the courts a move by the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum in court.
“We are not going to go there. It’s not an issue for the moment,” he said.
He said there are more important priorities for the U.K.
“The priority for politicians has to be the recovery from the pandemic,” he said, adding, “instead of concentrating on the things that divide, let’s concentrate on the things that unite.”