The millions of votes cast across Scotland on Saturday could be among the biggest of recent times, and not because of their impact on things like health, education and fishing. The biggest problem the country faced, and the one that was really at stake, was nowhere on the ballot, and that is the future of its 314-year-old union with England.
While the last votes were still counted on Saturday in the legislative elections, it emerged practically certain that the Scottish National Independence Party would not achieve the majority it hoped would create an irresistible momentum for a new referendum on the break with the UK. But he will retain power in Edinburgh, likely with backing from the Scottish Greens, ensuring the issue will continue to dominate Scottish politics, as it has in recent years.
What’s at stake?
A lot. A second independence plebiscite, followed by one in 2014, could lead to fracturing of the UK. If Scotland were to become independent, Britain would lose eight percent of its population, one-third of its landmass, and significant amounts of international prestige.
Some say the loss of Scotland would be the biggest blow to a British Prime Minister since Lord North lost the American colonies in the 18th century. Of course, the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is not a fan of the idea.
Wait, Scotland held an independence referendum just a few years ago? What changed?
In the 2014 referendum, the Scots rejected independence by a decisive margin, from 55% to 45%. It was supposed to solve the problem for a generation, but two years later there was the Brexit vote, and it drastically changed the landscape.
While England voted to leave the European Union, 62% of Scottish voters wanted to stay. With only about a tenth of England’s population, Scotland was vastly outnumbered and its preference was simply ignored. The resentments that helped reignite the pressure for what is widely known as “indyref2”.
Then there is the person of Mr. Johnson. Already widely hated in Scotland, he did nothing to make himself loved by relentlessly defending a hard version of Brexit, only to “succeed”, as he liked to say, by the arrival of 2021.
The resulting disruption to exporters, and in particular to Scotland’s important fishing and shellfish industries, which depended heavily on frictionless trade with the European Union, further angered Scots.
So who wants independence?
The main promoter is the Scottish National Party led by Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland. Her party has led the Scottish government for 14 years and she has earned praise for her consistent handling of the coronavirus pandemic, especially in relation to Mr Johnson’s performance.
There are also small parties that want another vote, like the Greens, who are close to the SNP Another pro-independence party, Alba, is led by Alex Salmond, who is not an ally of Ms Sturgeon – at least more. A former prime minister himself, Mr Salmond was once Ms Sturgeon’s mentor, but the two have recently been involved in a bitter quarrel, and his election campaign fell flat.
Why are the Scottish parliamentary elections so important for independence?
Restored in 1999, the Scottish Parliament was designed to quell calls for Scottish independence, but it didn’t work out that way. The pro-independence SNP has emerged as the dominant force and, in 2011, won a rare overall majority in a parliament where the voting system is designed to avoid single-party domination. After this result, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron reluctantly accepted the 2014 independence referendum.
Ms Sturgeon had hoped that a landslide victory for independence parties in these elections would give her the moral authority to demand another plebiscite. They failed, but Ms Sturgeon will keep pushing for a referendum claiming that, combined with the vote for the Greens, she has a mandate.
What are the results displayed?
They show a divided Scotland, divided in the middle on independence. This is in line with the results of opinion polls which last year showed that a majority in favor of independence had fallen slightly in recent months. The Scottish Conservatives, the opposition Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats all oppose independence.
The issue is so pervasive that some anti-independence voters appear to have switched allegiances from their normal parties to support whoever is most likely to defeat the SNP in their region. Ms Sturgeon is on track to remain prime minister, which is an impressive achievement, but with her path to an overall majority cut off, her moral argument for a second referendum has been weakened.
Can Boris Johnson stop ‘indyref2?’
For a second independence referendum to be legal would almost certainly require the London agreement, and Mr Johnson has repeatedly said no. This is a big deal for Mrs Sturgeon, as she wants the result of any second referendum to be accepted internationally and for Scotland to be allowed to return to the European Union.
Case closed then?
Far from there. Even relying on the Greens, Ms Sturgeon will likely have enough votes to pass legislation to ‘indyref2’ through the Scottish Parliament and then challenge Mr Johnson or his allies to arrest him in court.
It could cause a constitutional crisis. After all, Scotland’s union with England in 1707 was voluntary, making it difficult for London to say no forever to another referendum. And Mrs Sturgeon can calculate that support for independence will only grow if the Scots see popular will blocked by a government in England.