Today, the UK holds elections that were supposed to take place last year but were postponed due to the COVID pandemic. Most of the offices at stake are local positions throughout England. However, the real test for Boris Johnson and his Conservatives will be lying north, as the prospect of Scottish Independence looms over the election for their regional parliament.
The issue that will be in every voter’s and politician of the Union will be one and only: the always thorny Scottish Independence. Currently, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is the largest party in the assembly with 63 of the 129 seats and is looking to expand its position into an outright majority (650 to pressure London into accepting another Independence referendum in the country, a threat that Westminster is certainly looking with dread.
Scotland has already voted on the issue of independence in recent years. In 2014, 55% of the Scottish electorate decided to vote against the prospect of independence, a result that appeared to doom the separatist chances for at least a generation. However, much has changed in seven years and the divisive issue of Brexit (which almost 2/3 of Scots voted against) has given new strength to the separatist movement, as many claim Scotland was dragged out of the EU unwillingly.
With Brexit solved, and the next general election still three years in the future, Scottish Independence is poised to become the defining issue of the Johnson government. If the pro-independence parties manage to secure a healthy majority in the Scottish legislature, they will claim to have a popular mandate to request an independence referendum, with Johnson running the risk of being remembered not as the PM who solved Brexit, but the one who lost the union.
Polls show that it is basically certain that the SNP would continue in government, as the nationalists have more than 20% of advantage over Tories or Labour. The question is if the SNP would be able to gain absolute control over the Parliament remains, however, an open question. Polls also show that a hypothetical referendum on the independence of Scotland remains a fairly close election, with YouGov showing that the pro-union vote has a tight majority over the pro-independence bloc.
Can Scottish Independence be stopped?
If the SNP manages to win an outright majority, their playbook is to continue pressuring London to gain a new Independence referendum. If the government decides not to allow such an election to occur, then they would most likely have to fight such a decision in the courts. Even if they win such an argument in the courts, it would give the independence movement political ammunition to further their cause as they would argue to their voters that the system is preventing a democratic outcome on the issue.
Both parties in conflict have agreed that a referendum would be possible until the COVID emergency is officially over, however, this is just a stalling strategy as both the SNP and London begin planning their moves once the results of the election are counted.
The options for Johnson then, are two: take a Catalonia approach or follow a Quebec model.
The first measure is quite straightforward, utilize every aspect of institutional and legal power that the central government has to prevent the SNP of calling for a binding referendum on Scottish Independence, effectively blocking the nationalists from a straightforward route to get independence.
At first glance, this looks like a possible option for the government: they have a whopping majority in Parliament and technically the law that gives Scotland some sort of self-government also states that the “union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England” are matters strictly reserved to the central government, meaning that it is up to the House of Commons to determine if independence is possible or not.
However, this approach also has significant challenges, the main one being that it would further galvanize the pro-independence movement and cement the status of the SNP as a majority party in Scotland, keeping the issue of independence alive for decades to come even if they are unable to legally leave the union.
This would leave Scotland in a similar situation as Catalonia: an intractable constitutional issue that will become the eternal headache for whatever government takes power in London.
The other choice for London is to accept the incoming second referendum but agreeing to it only at a time where is most beneficial for the pro-union option. The pro-independence option has been increasingly delcining in the polls, and a good combination of savvy campaigning and with the Brexit debate becoming an old issue could create enough momentum and give a second defeat to the independence movement in less than a decade.
Nevertheless, this is a high risk-high reward strategy. Like in Quebec in 1995, a victory (even a tight one) can bury the independence question for decades to come and Johnson can claim dual victory, leaving the EU and keeping the UK in one piece. However, elections are always unpredictable and even if the polls might be favorable today for the union vote, that is not a guarantee for the future.
The issue will depend on the results of today’s elections and how strong is the SNP’s position with the general public. Regardless of the outcome of the election one thing is certain, Boris might have resolved the Europe question, but his biggest challenge might still be in the horizon.