SNP Victory: What Does This Mean For Scottish Independence?

On 6th May the Scottish parliament elections took place, with the results announced two days later, confirming Nicola Sturgeon’s reign as Scotland’s first minister for the next five years. These results affirm the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) dominance in Scottish elections as the SNP enters a fourth term in office, the first beginning with Alex Salmond in 2007. However, the SNP lost its majority by falling one seat short of the 65 seats needed for a majority. A coalition with the Scottish Greens could potentially grant them a majority and possibly further bolster the prospects of a Scottish independence referendum.

A referendum on Scottish independence is written in the SNP’s manifesto, stating that it will take place during their term in the office once the ‘Covid crisis is over. However, the government in Westminster is not keen for this to go ahead, with Boris Johnson describing a referendum as both ‘irresponsible and reckless. Nonetheless, Nicola Sturgeon remains certain that a referendum is a matter of when, not if’, insisting that the SNP’s fourth term in office is inherently a decree for another referendum, even if they do not hold a majority.

Of course, it is not as simple as this for several reasons. First of all, the process of approving a referendum is complicated. The prerogative for who has the right order is often debated between the Scots and the English. The crux of the debate is whether a referendum is a political right, in which case the one can be cast independent of the approval of the British government, or whether it falls under the bounds of the Scotland Act whereby Scotland is legally subject to the rulings made by Westminster. In either case, Boris Johnson will be uninterested in empathising with calls for independence as both Prime Minister of the UK and leader of the Conservative Party, which is notoriously pro-union (in fact the official name of the Conservatives is the Conservative Unionist Party).

After seeing the instability caused by Johnson’s predecessor, David Cameron, with his decision to approve a referendum in 2014, combined with the uncertainty from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and post-Brexit Britain, Scottish independence will lie at the bottom of the immediate political agenda. Furthermore, it is unlikely Sturgeon will risk losing her hard-earned support by pushing through a legally obscure referendum like the one in Catalonia in 2017, which in the end was not recognised by the UK or EU. After all, the SNP’s manifesto has promised economic stability post-pandemic via an expansive welfare programme.

The reality is that Westminster cannot afford to lose Scotland – not only does it damage the ‘stronger Britain’ rhetoric which has fuelled populist politics behind Britain’s exit from the European Union, but it would also be a huge strategic and economic loss. Britain has key military bases in Scotland and would essentially lose access to all of its domestic oil supply. While another referendum is likely, it is unclear whether this will be legally binding in nature or not, which to some extent is beside the point: as we have recently seen with Brexit, advisory referendums can be just as potent.

James Arin Duffy