June 13, 2021

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Scotland Election Results Complicate Hopes for Independence Referendum – The New York Times

5 min read

LONDON — Hopes for a swift path to independence in Scotland were dampened on Saturday, as early election results showed the dominant Scottish nationalist party falling just short of a majority in the country’s parliament.

The results, if confirmed after the votes are fully counted by Saturday evening, would deprive the Scottish National Party of a symbolic victory in a closely-fought election. That, in turn, is likely to stiffen the determination of Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain to deny Scottish voters the chance to hold a second referendum on independence.

Yet pro-independence parties were on track to stay in overall control, which will keep the flame of Scottish nationalism alive and ensure that the threat of Scotland’s breaking away will continue to bedevil the United Kingdom.

The number of seats won by the Scottish National Party in the election, held on Thursday, is in some ways less important than the political winds, which are still blowing in favor of the separatists. By allying with the pro-independence Scottish Greens, the Scottish nationalists could tighten their control over the regional Parliament.

Party leaders have signaled that they will put a second referendum at the top of the agenda after Scotland recovers from the coronavirus pandemic. The last time the Scots voted on independence, in 2014, they opted to remain in the United Kingdom by 55 percent to 45 percent. Polls show close to a 50-50 split on the question now, with support for breaking away having weakened slightly in recent months.

While disappointing to the Scottish nationalists, the apparent absence of a clear majority might ultimately work to their advantage, by giving them time to build support for a referendum rather than being stampeded into an immediate campaign by the pressure of an overwhelming mandate.

Still, the result would be a relief to Mr. Johnson, for whom the dissolution of the United Kingdom looms as a potentially defining event for his premiership. He remains deeply unpopular in Scotland, and it is not clear how well prepared his government is to counter a reinvigorated push for Scottish independence.

For his part, Mr. Johnson was basking in Conservative Party’s victories in regional elections across England, which left the opposition Labour Party in disarray and reinforced his reputation as an inveterate vote-getter. Yet some of the same post-Brexit populism that won the Conservatives votes in working-class parts of the Midlands and northern England worked against him in a more liberal and Brexit-averse Scotland.

On Friday, Mr. Johnson vowed to reject demands for a referendum, saying that as Britain emerged from the pandemic, the country should focus on rebuilding the economy rather than fighting over constitutional issues.

“I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless,” he said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. “I think that there’s no case now for such a thing. I don’t think it’s what the times call for at all.”

That is unlikely to stop pro-independence leaders like Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who confirmed that she would push for another referendum. She and other officials were already claiming a mandate like that of 2011, when the Scottish National Party last won an absolute majority and petitioned for a referendum. Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, David Cameron, yielded to their demand.

“He saw that there was a clear democratic mandate for it, and there will be another clear democratic mandate this time,” Lorna Slater, a leader of the Scottish Greens, told the BBC on Saturday. “What kind of country are we if we ignore that kind of democratic mandate?”

Analysts said the cause of independence might be helped by a drawn-out battle with the Westminster government, since it would alienate Scottish voters, potentially driving more of them into the separatist camp. There is also the prospect of bitter legal battles, potentially ending up in Britain’s Supreme Court, if the Scots threaten to proceed with a referendum in defiance of London.

“That’s not a bad thing for the S.N.P., because Nicola Sturgeon has said our priority is to solve Covid first,” said Nicola McEwen, a professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh. The nationalists, she noted, also do not yet “have answers to tough questions regarding what would happen with the border.”

Problems in Northern Ireland, which emerged from Brexit with a hybrid status as a part of the United Kingdom but with no land border with the Irish republic, underscore the difficulties of even a partial split from the union. Economists warn that the cost to Scotland of leaving would be profound.

Pro-independence sentiment in Scotland was fueled by the Brexit referendum in 2016, which a majority of Scots voted against. Many in Scotland would like to the rejoin the European Union and view an independence referendum as a step in that direction.

That is one reason Professor McEwen and other analysts predict that Scotland would not stage a “wildcat referendum,” since the European Union and other governments would be unlikely to recognize the results.

Mr. Johnson, analysts said, would probably seek to blunt pro-independence sentiment by pouring money into Scotland. If the pressure continues to mount, he could offer to delegate more authority to Scotland’s government.

Under the terms of limited self-government in the United Kingdom, the Scottish authorities are responsible for matters like health and education, while the British government handles immigration, foreign policy and fiscal policy.

Mr. Johnson’s goal, analysts said, would be to play for time, delaying any referendum until after the next British general election, which is due to be held in 2024. But repeatedly rebuffing Scottish calls could backfire.

“There is a view in Westminster that denying a referendum will only fire independence sentiment,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. “This is not a problem that is going away. It is only going to get bigger over time.”

For Ms. Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National Party, failing to win a clear majority would nevertheless be deflating. Such a mandate seemed within her grasp last summer when she was getting credit for steering Scotland’s response to the coronavirus, an approach that was more cautious than Mr. Johnson’s and seemed, for a time, to produce better results.

But Britain’s successful rollout of vaccines blurred the differences, and Scotland’s case and death rates — while somewhat lower than those of England — are no longer all that far apart. Analysts cited the British vaccine campaign as a factor in the modest decline in support for independence, which was above 50 percent in polls for much of last year.

Moreover, Ms. Sturgeon, 50, became embroiled in a bitter feud with her predecessor, Alex Salmond, over a botched internal investigation of sexual misconduct charges against him. She was accused of deceiving lawmakers, breaking rules and even conspiring against Mr. Salmond, a former close ally.

Ms. Sturgeon was cleared of breaching the rules and misleading Parliament just as the campaign got underway, but the dispute dented her image. Mr. Salmond launched a breakaway party, Alba, which did not appear on track to win any seats but served as a reminder of the internecine split.

“This year has been quite difficult for the S.N.P. and for Nicola Sturgeon personally,” Professor McEwen said. Also, she added, “The broad shoulders of the U.K. have helped see us through the pandemic.”

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