Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 377, 12 May 2021

Scotland elections: SNP's win revives independence call, a united UK remains on edge
Sourina Bej

In the news 
On 9 May, the newly elected leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that another referendum on independence was inevitable. Sturgeon was speaking after her party won another electoral victory for the fourth consecutive term. "The First Minister reiterated her intention to ensure that the people of Scotland can choose our own future when the COVID-19 crisis is over," the media office of Nicola Sturgeon said in a press statement. "(She) made clear that the question of a referendum is now a matter of when - not if," read the statement. However, a statement from Boris Johnson's Downing Street office after his talks with Sturgeon made no mention of the referendum. Johnson spoke to Sturgeon on the occasion of a summit where he invited the leaders of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to discuss how the four nations, including England, can together overcome "shared challenges."

On 8 May, SNP emerged as the leading party with 64 seats, just one short of an overall majority. Together with its Green allies, who won eight and also favour independence, SNP is likely to control the agenda for independence in Scotland.
Issues at large
First, the rekindling of the idea of independent Scotland. SNP's win only brings to the fore the deep-seated demands for independence among the Scots from the UK. In its pre-election manifesto, SNP had pledged to hold a new Scottish independence referendum. In the 2014 plebiscite, Scotland voted by a margin of 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain united with the UK. However, ever since the 2016 referendum in the UK, which culminated with Brexit, the desire for complete autonomy among the Scots have pushed the support for another referendum. The Scots had opposed the decision to move out of the EU in 2016 by more than 62 per cent.

Second, call for a second plebiscite and leadership of SNP. The call for the second plebiscite has become stronger under Boris Johnson, who is widely disliked in Scotland, and his steadfast persuasion of hard-line Brexit has dented the economy of Scotland. The resultant has been disruption to exporters, and in particular, Scotland's fish and shellfish industries lost the benefits of free trade with the EU. This has further angered the Scots, and the discontent received its political momentum with SNP's Nicola Sturgeon. She reiterated the high handedness of Westminster, represented by Boris Johnson, in denying them a second plebiscite under the 1998 Scotland Act. Sturgeon's leadership has borne her another public mandate which today has become the mandate for independence.

Third, Brexit rejuvenates Scottish nationalism. Johnson and his predecessors have long argued that the issue was settled in the 2014 referendum. However, the situation drastically changed with Brexit. The 62 per cent opposition votes towards the divorce in Scotland essentially rekindled a sense of being denied a voice in the Brexit process. The SNP had strongly argued that Scotland was being pulled out of the EU against its 'democratic will,' when in all reality, Britain chose its nationalist interest to be independent of the EU. The election outcome is likely to be a bitter clash between the Scottish government in Edinburgh and Johnson's administration in London, with the nationalists arguing on democratic authority and the conservatives siding with the law as a defensive tool.

In perspective
First, in the long term, another referendum is probably a complicated and costly event for both Scotland and Britain. With the Scottish nationalists dominating the Parliament, it will be difficult for the British conservatives to duck the calls for a plebiscite. SNP has crafted its political argument for independence, urging that its legal sanctity is only a matter of time. But the British government is attempting to win the political argument for union through the legal lens. If Sturgeon forces the plebiscite, Johnson could settle it in the UK Supreme Court.

Second, the fears that call for independence in Scotland could tear through the UK may probably be an overstretch as the systemic rules are deep-seated (as one could observe in the post-Brexit scenario). The fears that Northern Ireland, which also voted to remain in the EU in 2016, may also witness similar support for reunification could most likely also remain rhetoric.

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