Scotland's nationalists win vote, setting up independence clash with British government

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Pro-independence parties won a majority in Scotland's parliament on Saturday, paving the way to a high-stakes political, legal and constitutional battle with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the future of the United Kingdom.

GLASGOW (BLOOMBERG) - Scotland is headed for a protracted showdown with the British government over the right to an independence referendum after leader Nicola Sturgeon's nationalists scored a decisive election victory.

The Scottish National Party won 64 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, one more than in 2016 and giving it a fourth term in power. The result left Sturgeon one seat short of a majority, though the pro-independence Green Party increased the number of its lawmakers to eight from six.

The election was dominated by a single theme: whether the nation of 5.5 million should get another vote on leaving the UK in the wake of Brexit.

The outcome sets up an escalation of the standoff with Prime Minister Boris Johnson over Scotland's constitutional future.

"There is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson or anyone else seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our future," Sturgeon said in her victory speech on Saturday (May 8).

Sturgeon will use her mandate to pressure the British government to acquiesce to another referendum.

In an interview with the Telegraph newspaper published on Saturday, Johnson suggested he would reject calls even if the SNP secured a majority in the Scottish Parliament. A referendum right now would be "irresponsible and reckless," he said.

But if Johnson wants to stop Scottish legislation on a referendum, he will have to go to the Supreme Court to challenge it, Sturgeon has said. A draft Referendum Bill has already been published.

Divided nation

Sturgeon has been pressing for another referendum since Scotland voted against Brexit in 2016. Her government in Edinburgh has control over policy areas such as health, education, justice and transportation and some financial affairs, though not key issues post-Brexit such as immigration and foreign policy.

"We are clearly looking at a Scottish Parliament with an enhanced pro-independence majority thanks to what looks like a record-breaking performance from the Greens," said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow and Britain's most prominent electoral analyst.

"We can say there clearly is going to be a constitutional clash at some point between this parliament and the UK government."

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Scotland was among a swathe of voting across the UK that included English local councils and the Welsh assembly.

Johnson's Conservatives scored an increase in support in England, including winning an electoral district in the north-east held by Labour since it was created in 1974.

Indeed, the Scottish election hardened the dividing lines on the UK political map and also over where Scotland goes next.

Demonstrators for Scottish independence gather at George Square in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 1, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The last plebiscite on independence, in 2014, came after the SNP won a majority three years earlier and the British government granted the legal power to hold one. The result was 55 per cent to 45 per cent in favour of Scotland remaining in the three-centuries-old union with England and Wales.

The latest polls show support for both sides is now roughly neck and neck.

Another referendum would be "an enormous gamble" for both Sturgeon and Johnson, said Curtice.

The election has "underlined the sharp, even division between unionism and the support for independence," he said.

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