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8 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 12:48pm

Nicola Sturgeon wants a second Scottish referendum – but will she get one?

The First Minister faces two obstacles to a fresh vote: Boris Johnson and the Scottish people’s own caution.

By Chris Deerin

In the end, it might be tempting to wonder what the point of the Scottish election was. After all, Holyrood will look little different when it reconvenes than it did at its pre-election dissolution. 

In total, just three constituency seats have changed hands. The SNP remains a minority government and will continue to rely on the Greens for support. There is a Nat-Green pro-independence majority in Edinburgh, as there already was. The Tories are still the main opposition, the beneficiaries of anti-independence votes rather than genuine affection. And Labour still has a huge job to do to get itself back in the conversation.

Same old, same old. But there is obviously change whenever a nation goes to the ballot box. Mandates are sought and refreshed and the preferred direction of travel is laid out with an authority the opinion polls can never quite muster. With turnout thought to be above 60 per cent, which would be the highest in Holyrood’s history, no one can deny Scots have had their say, even if there will be some dispute about what it is they have said. 

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It is, by any measure, a tremendous victory for the SNP. The party has comfortably secured a fourth term with a large and marginally enhanced lead over its opponents, winning three new constituency seats, taking its overall total to 63, two shy of an outright majority in the 129-seat Scottish parliament. Nicola Sturgeon says her party has won more votes and a higher share of the votes in the constituency ballot than any party in the history of devolution.

The voters have given an emphatic stamp of approval to her continued leadership and, she will argue, fresh momentum and legitimacy to the push for independence. 

This latter point is, of course, where the political disagreements will now be concentrated. Unionists will argue that the result doesn’t prove one way or another whether Scots want a second independence referendum. It certainly gives no indication of when they want a referendum, and if they want one on the timescale proposed by the SNP – that is, by the end of 2023. And that’s all before you get to whether they want independence itself.

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Some Scots will have voted SNP because they regard Sturgeon as the best person to lead the country, and were impressed by her stewardship throughout the Covid pandemic. Others may like much of the SNP’s social democratic agenda, certainly in preference to what’s offered by the Scottish Conservatives, the main threat at this stage to Nationalist dominance. Voters may particularly enjoy the security, as they have in the past, of Sturgeon and the SNP standing up for Scotland’s interests against Boris Johnson and his Westminster government.

The row over the already wearying word “mandate” will be endless. Again, unionists will point out that voters could have given the SNP an overall majority, but didn’t. It is a matter of judgement whether the rise in the SNP/Green vote compared to the 2016 result shows the electorate agrees with Sturgeon’s insistence that leaving the EU is a “material change of circumstances” that validates a second referendum, so soon after the first. The First Minister certainly thinks so, accusing her unionist opponents of “desperately trying to rewrite the basic rules of democracy and redefine what constitutes an election win and a mandate”.

“Let’s be clear about what Scotland voted for on Thursday,” she said on Saturday evening. “The people of Scotland have voted to give pro-independence parties a majority in the Scottish parliament. The SNP and Scottish Greens both stood on a clear commitment to an independence referendum within the next parliamentary term. And both of us said that the timing of a referendum should be decided by a simple majority of MSPs in the Scottish parliament.

“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.”

Strong words, and not without merit or force. The fly in the nationalist ointment is that recent polls have shown most voters do not want a referendum in the next couple of years. Then there’s the fact that support for independence itself has been around 50 per cent and in some cases, lower than support for the Union. If Sturgeon held a referendum tomorrow there is every chance she would lose it. She must now square the circle of an electorate that’s in no rush to vote and a Yes movement that is straining at the leash. Politics, as much as principle, will come into play.

Also standing in Sturgeon’s way is the Prime Minister. Johnson has said no to a referendum and gives every indication he will continue to say no, regardless of the election result. The First Minister has said her administration will push on with its plans and if the UK government wants to prevent a referendum it will have to go to court. It may well choose to do so, and it may win. Or it may refuse to be drawn down the legal route at all and test Sturgeon’s enthusiasm for something that would have the feel of a wildcat plebiscite. The First Minister is determined to avoid this because the vote would lack international legitimacy. It would certainly be boycotted by large numbers of unionists, which would heavily undermine its result.

These are the questions that will dominate Scottish politics for the next few years, much as they have dominated the past few years. In the meantime, the election result clears up some other issues.

The Scottish people have cast a final and surely irreversible judgement on Alex Salmond, sending him and the fly-ridden carcass of his unpleasant Alba Party into oblivion. This, we must hope, is the last time our democracy need be troubled by this humiliated, peripheral and profoundly unpopular man, bonnet and all.

Despite failing to break through to second place and losing two constituency seats to the SNP, Labour is in a perky state. New leader Anas Sarwar was impressive throughout the campaign, having gone into the election after only a month in the job expecting the worst. He will not be surprised by the outcome, and now has five years to build his party into an attractive and plausible alternative to the nationalists, and to woo the voters. Not easy, but certainly not as unthinkable as it was 12 months ago.

Douglas Ross, the Tory leader, is at least now in Holyrood. He will go head to head with Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions each week, and if he can lose the stiffness and project a little more humanity and empathy, then more voters may warm to him. The constitutional war throughout the next parliament will allow the Conservatives to continue playing to their one-note, but enduringly successful, political strategy.

As for the Greens, they seem to have gained a few MSPs and will feel entitled to demand more from the SNP for their parliamentary support. With the possibility of a second referendum now properly in play, Sturgeon will want to hug them close. Expect a lot more about well-being, the environment, a green recovery and perhaps even gender reform from the Scottish government.

The election is over. The real battle has just begun.