World / Politics

Scotland's future in spotlight again after U.K. election

Johnson likely to face referendum after SNP success

Bloomberg

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson may be celebrating a stunning election victory, but another leader also scored an emphatic win — and it is one that promises to set up a renewed clash over the United Kingdom’s future.

The Scottish National Party was on course to take back most of the districts it lost two years ago. Such a dramatic outcome — possibly winning at least 50 of the 59 seats available in Scotland — will galvanize the party in its pursuit of the independence referendum leader Nicola Sturgeon says is necessary after her country opposed leaving the European Union.

Johnson, like his predecessor, Theresa May, has consistently resisted pressure from the SNP-led administration in Edinburgh for another independence vote. But the last one, when Scots chose to stay in the U.K. in 2014, was before the vote to leave the EU. Sturgeon made stopping Brexit and giving Scotland the right to dictate its own future the cornerstone of her party’s campaign.

“Johnson has a mandate for Brexit and Sturgeon has a mandate for Scottish independence,” Simon Hix, professor of political science at the London School of Economics, said after the exit poll. “We are heading towards a new constitutional crisis, which won’t be resolved easily in the next few years.”

As of early Friday morning, the SNP had taken 46 of the 59 seats, gaining 13, while Johnson’s Conservatives lost seven and Labour lost six. The SNP held others with increased majorities and even took the seat of Liberal Democrat Party leader Jo Swinson.

“It shows the divergent paths that Scotland and the rest of the U.K. are on,” Sturgeon told the BBC from Glasgow. “It’s still my plan to submit an official request before the end of the year for a new independence referendum.”

Indeed, the election painted the opposite picture to 2017, when May ended up needing the dozen seats the Conservatives won from the SNP to remain in power. The nationalists lost more districts than they expected as then Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson rallied opposition to another vote on leaving the three-centuries-old U.K. Davidson quit this year when Johnson became leader of the party nationally.

The result means more SNP supporters will be agitating for Sturgeon to demand an independence vote — regardless of whether the U.K. government acquiesces to one, a legal requirement. Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s justice minister, said after the exit poll that the referendum in 2014 was the “gold standard” and that Scotland will seek the legal agreement for a repeat vote next year.

While polls have typically shown an independence referendum would be too close to call, two recent surveys gave a clear lead for sticking with the U.K. An SNP election victory would make the party’s army of activists more confident they can narrow the gap. Scottish parliamentary elections are also due in 2021, when the SNP could reinforce its mandate for a referendum.

“If Sturgeon wins big again in May 2021, Johnson will be unable to resist a second independence referendum,” said Hix.