Scotland vote sets up fresh independence clash with London

Published May 10, 2021
Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon gives a thumbs-up on the steps of her official residence Bute House in Edinburgh on May 9. — AFP
Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon gives a thumbs-up on the steps of her official residence Bute House in Edinburgh on May 9. — AFP

EDINBURGH: The Scottish National Party on Sunday said its landslide victory in Edinburgh’s devolved parliament was grounds for a fresh independence referendum, despite opposition from London.

While the SNP campaigned on promises to hold a new vote, the UK government — which would need to give formal legal permission — is opposed, raising fears of a protracted political and legal battle.

Now the nationalists say their slightly increased share of seats, one short of an overall majority of 65, gives them a mandate for “indyref2”, so called after the “no” vote in Scotland’s first independence referendum in 2014.

Scottish media stressed the SNP’s strong showing, with The Herald on Sunday headlining its front page simply: “Landslide”.

But UK-wide newspapers had a different take, as The Sunday Telegraph declared “Sturgeon falls short of majority”.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said in her victory speech that Westminster now has “no democratic justification” to deny a second independence referendum.

“I hope to lead Scotland to independence,” she told the BBC on Sunday.

She said that it would be “absurd and completely outrageous” for the referendum to lead to a legal wrangle in the Supreme Court, as could happen if Westminster blocked it and the Scottish parliament passed its own legislation.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the 2014 referendum where 55 percent voted “no” should be a once in a generation event.

Johnson said that the SNP’s aim of a second referendum was “irresponsible and reckless” while he wrote a public letter to Sturgeon asking her to “work together” in “Team UK.” Sturgeon told the BBC that she thought the UK government ultimately would not stand against the referendum because this would come across as disrespectful of Scots’ democratic rights.

“It would mean that the Conservative government had refused to respect the democratic wishes of the Scottish people,” she said.

“I think it is an understatement to say that that wouldn’t play well.” Sturgeon arrived back at her official residence in Edinburgh on Sunday, waving and giving a thumbs-up as a supporter shouted: “Well done!” On Sunday, senior UK minister Michael Gove sought to downplay the brewing conflict.

He insisted in comments to the BBC that for all UK leaders including Sturgeon the priority is recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and claimed the country did not have time now for a “protracted conversation about the Constitution”.

Gove also argued that the fact that the SNP do not have an outright majority in the devolved parliament — as they did before the first referendum in 2014 — made a “significant difference”.

“It is not the case now, as we see, that the people of Scotland are agitating for the referendum,” said Gove, who himself grew up in Scotland.

The Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross claimed in a tweet that his party “stopped an SNP majority, stopped indyref2.” The Conservatives, Holyrood’s second largest party, increased its number of votes while keeping its seats at 31.

Asked whether Scotland was allowed to leave the UK, Gove said: “Of course it is... through a legal referendum which would allow people to make that choice”.

Scotland’s stronger push for independence won backing from Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, who tweeted that Britain “must decide if their union is held together by legislation or consent”.

With the Scottish Greens also backing a referendum, Holyrood now has a larger majority of pro-independence politicians than before, with 72 seats out of 129.

“The immediate problem is that the Conservative government at Westminster will say no in the short term,” Dr Lynn Bennie, a reader in politics at the University of Aberdeen, said.

The UK government has the remit to grant or refuse a referendum despite the debate about democratic rights, she stressed.

“You basically have two governments coming together in a sort of democratic log jam and it’s very hard to see how this will be resolved.”

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2021

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