The electoral map of Scotland has been bathed in a sea of yellow following Thursday’s election. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared that ‘no-one would have predicted the scale and record-breaking nature’ of her party’s victory.
Indeed it was an election of records: the highest ever voter turnout; the first woman of colour was elected and the first disabled wheel-chair user was elected to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. In addition, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a higher share of the votes in the constituency ballot than any party in the history of devolution; returning 64 out of 129 seats - an extraordinary feat for a party that has been in government since 2007.
The SNP’s main objective, of course, since its foundation in 1934, has been to gain independence from the Union. Back in those days, and for much of the 20th century, it was a fringe party, considered by many mainstream voters as a movement for cranks and loonies. Not any more. The SNP - firstly under Alex Salmond’s leadership, but particularly under Nicola Sturgeon - has become THE mainstream party now in Scotland; its centre-left politics and social policies appealing to the majority of the electorate. As such, it has swallowed up left-wing voters from Labour - who now represent little threat to the SNP - only winning 22 seats at the weekend.
Not securing the one extra seat needed for an absolute majority - difficult to do anyway under Scotland’s proportional representation voting system - the SNP will need to team up with another party to form a government. It’s likely that this will be the same as it is at present - the Green party - who also, incidentally, support independence. The Green party and SNP seats combined constitute a 55% pro-independence majority at Holyrood, greater than before. This is a force, that Nicola Sturgeon, in her acceptance speech on Saturday, said cannot be ignored in terms of Scotland’s future outside the Union:
“Given the outcome of this election, there is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson or anyone else seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our future. If there is such an attempt it will demonstrate conclusively that the UK is not a partnership of equals and that – astonishingly – Westminster no longer sees the UK as a voluntary union of nations.”
Although Sturgeon made clear in her speech that no immediate plans would be made for holding a referendum on independence, she did indicate that once the country has recovered from the pandemic, and is back on its feet, that her party would seek one. This will likely be some time in the course of the next five years. A vote would firstly take place in the Scottish parliament as to whether the government should request a Section 30 order - temporary legislative power granted by Westminster to the Scottish parliament. Given the pro-independence majority in this parliament, the vote is likely to be passed. However, all the indications are that Boris Johnson’s government would NOT grant such an order. After Thursday’s election the Prime Minister was quick to say it would be ‘irresponsible and reckless’ to hold another referendum.
Boris Johnson isn’t the only one however casting doubt on how independence can be achieved. Constitutional experts are also sceptical of how it could be done legally, if Westminster doesn’t want to cooperate. Ciaran Martin, from the University of Oxford, who advised David Cameron in the run-up to the 2014 referendum, has said that there is no ‘legal and democratic route’ to Scottish independence. Even if the issue reaches the Supreme Court, which he believes it will if the PM does not grant a Section 30 order, he thinks that the UK government will win the case. Even if it were not to win, he adds, Westminster could change the law in order to prevent Scotland leaving the Union. He said in a BBC interview on Saturday that ‘there are no limits to the UK’s legal powers to block a smooth passage to independence’.
This issue has of course been debated by Scottish nationalists in recent years, who, growing impatient with the SNP leadership, have been calling for a more Catalonia-style, boots-on-the-ground approach which could see Scotland holding a referendum without England’s consent. This led to something of a split in the party with several members defecting to Alex Salmond’s new ALBA party - founded to speed up the independence process by creating a so-called ‘super-majority’ in the Scottish parliament. Salmond’s party did not, however, fare well in this election, failing to gain a single seat. As such, this has consolidated Sturgeon’s position and demonstrated that the majority of Scots prefer her more careful, considered approach. If she was to become more radical, she could find that she loses her mainstream support. Clearly she is waiting until the temperature is right before she starts the independence ball rolling.
Nationalists are concerned, however, that Sturgeon may miss the boat. In politics, momentum is everything, and right now the political divide between Scotland and England could not be greater. Scots didn’t vote for Brexit; nor did they vote for the Conservative party led by Boris Johnson. (The last time the Conservatives got a majority vote in Scotland was 1955.) The current government at Westminster has quite a different set of values from the one in Edinburgh. Although unlikely, given the current weaknesses in the Labour party south of the border, if the Labour party was to win the 2024 general election, some Scots may be more inclined to back it and less likely to vote to leave the Union. Time is ticking on the independence clock.
By Johanna Ross is a journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.