The millions of votes counted across Scotland on Saturday could be some of the most momentous of recent times, and not because of their impact on things like health, education and fisheries. The biggest problem the country faced and was really at stake was nowhere on the ballot and that is the future of its 314 year old union with England.
While the final votes were still being counted in Saturday’s general election, it seemed almost certain that the Scottish Independent National Party would miss the majority it had hoped would provide an irresistible impetus for a new referendum to break off the elections would give United Kingdom. But it will keep power in Edinburgh, probably with the support of the Scottish Greens, to guarantee that the issue will continue to dominate Scottish politics, as it has for the past few years.
What’s at stake?
Much. A second referendum on independence after a referendum in 2014 could break the UK. If Scotland were to become independent, Britain would lose eight percent of its population, a third of its land mass and a considerable amount of international prestige.
Some say the loss of Scotland would be the greatest blow to a British Prime Minister since Lord North lost the colonies in America in the 18th century. Understandably, current Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not a fan of this idea.
Wait a minute, Scotland only had an independence referendum a few years ago? What has changed?
In the 2014 referendum, the Scots rejected independence with a decisive lead of 55 to 45 percent. That should solve the problem for a generation, but two years later came the Brexit vote and that changed the landscape radically.
While England voted to leave the European Union, 62 percent of Scottish voters wanted to stay. With only about a tenth the population of England, Scotland was outnumbered and its preference was simply ignored. Resentment about this has helped revive the urge for what is commonly known as “Indyref2”.
Then there is the person of Mr. Johnson. Already widespread in Scotland, he did nothing to inspire himself, steadfastly advocating a hardline version of Brexit and eventually “finishing it off,” as he liked to say when 2021 arrived.
The resulting disruption to exporters, and particularly to the important Scottish fish and shellfish industry, which relied heavily on smooth trade with the European Union, has further angered Scots.
So who wants independence?
The main proponent is the Scottish National Party, led by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister. Her party has led the Scottish Government for 14 years and she has earned praise for her steadfast handling of the coronavirus pandemic, especially when compared to Mr. Johnson’s early appearances.
There are smaller parties who also want another vote, such as the Greens, who are close to the SNP. Another party for independence, Alba, is led by Alex Salmond, who is not an ally of Ms. Sturgeon – at least not anymore. As a former first minister, Mr. Salmond was once Ms. Sturgeon’s mentor, but the two have recently been embroiled in a bitter feud and his campaign has stalled.
Why are Scottish general elections so important to independence?
The Scottish Parliament, newly established in 1999, was supposed to satisfy the demand for Scottish independence, but it did not work out that way. The independent SNP has become the dominant force and in 2011 won a rare overall majority in a parliament in which the voting system is designed to avoid the rule of one party. Following that outcome, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron reluctantly approved the 2014 independence referendum.
Ms. Sturgeon had hoped that an overwhelming victory for the independence parties in these elections would give her the moral authority to call for another referendum. They stayed behind, but Mrs Sturgeon will keep pressure on a referendum claiming that she has a mandate along with the vote for the Greens.
What do the results show?
They show a divided Scotland that is split in the middle over independence. This is in line with the results of opinion polls, which showed last year that a majority are in favor of independence, only to fall behind marginally in recent months. The Scottish Conservatives, the opposition Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats are all against independence.
The issue is so dominant that some anti-independence voters appear to have switched the allegiances of their normal parties to support the party most likely to defeat the SNP in their area. Ms. Sturgeon is on track to remain first minister, which is an impressive achievement, but with her path to an overall majority likely cut off, her moral case for a second referendum has been weakened.
Can Boris Johnson stop ‘indyref2’?
For a second independence referendum to be legal it would almost certainly require London’s approval, and Mr Johnson has repeatedly said no. This is a big problem for Mrs Sturgeon because she wants the result of a second referendum to be accepted internationally and for Scotland to be allowed to return to the European Union.
Case closed then?
Far from it. Even if she has to rely on the Greens, Ms. Sturgeon will likely have enough votes to get indyref2 legislation through the Scottish Parliament and then ask Mr. Johnson or his allies to stop them in court.
That could cause a constitutional crisis. After all, Scotland’s union with England was voluntary in 1707, which made it difficult for London to say no to another referendum forever. And Mrs Sturgeon can calculate that support for independence will only increase when the Scots see popular will being blocked by a government in England.