Scottish election 2021: Time to call Nicola Sturgeon's bluff. If Boris Johnson allows a swift independence referendum, he can secure the UK's future – John McLellan

As queues of voters snaked back from polling stations into the darkness with only minutes to go before the polls in Edinburgh closed on Thursday, it was clear something different was happening.

Predictions of a low turnout, not least by me in Thursday’s Edinburgh Evening News because of bad weather, voter fatigue and, as far as the party to emerge with the most seats was concerned, a foregone conclusion, turned out to be wide of the mark.

Over 80 per cent of postal votes in Edinburgh were returned, there were reports from Glasgow of ballot boxes too full to take more votes, in Balerno it took until 11.30pm for the final voter to cast their ballot and Edinburgh constituencies recorded turnouts of over 70 per cent. Unprecedented has become the most over-used word of the year, but taking an extra 90 minutes to cope with the late voting surge surely qualifies.

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Yesterday morning in Ingliston’s cavernous Highland Hall hangar, there was none of the usual frenzied anticipation associated with big election counts, but as the rain battered down on the vast metal roof and early intelligence arrived from around the country, it looked like the SNP’s parade was unlikely to be spoilt by the weather or the opposition parties’ campaigns.

With no exit polls, at time of writing it was impossible to predict the precise outcome apart from the SNP being the biggest single party, but it’s beyond doubt the flames of increasingly heated constitutional division will be fanned no matter how it falls.

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The Conservative victories across the north of England, like Hartlepool and Northumberland, have only intensified the sense that these are indeed divided islands with no obvious route to bridge the gap.

The question is whether Scotland can go on with the bitterness and uncertainty when the focus should be on a sustainable recovery. It remains Nicola Sturgeon’s intention to trigger an independence referendum after the recovery but in this parliament, by which time it is by no means certain the recovery will be complete.

Boris Johnson has proven that, despite his many personal failings, he is a political winner, says John McLellan (Picture: Stu Norton)

Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey this week gave a bullish prediction of a 7.25 per cent increase in GDP this year on the back of the vaccine programme’s success, while pointing out two years of growth had been lost. “Let’s not get carried away,” he said. “It takes us back by the end of this year to the level of output we had essentially at the end of 2019 pre-Covid. So that is good news in the context of where we’ve been.”

Good news indeed, but Mr Bailey was quick to quash fears the growth spurt will be accompanied by the pain of inflation, which he dismissed as “transitory”, with a return below the two per cent target rate by 2023. But it can’t be guaranteed, and with working patterns uncertain, nor can a prediction that unemployment will settle at five per cent after furlough and the other job support mechanisms end.

On top of historically sluggish economic performance in Scotland, Ms Sturgeon has contradicted her message that a referendum can only be held after the recovery by saying this can only be fully achieved with independence. So the SNP cannot be fully focused on recovery and it will surely be hampered while the fight over Indyref2 rages.

One way or another, settling the independence question is necessary for national reconstruction, but not the way the First Minister would prefer. The Scottish Conservatives fought this campaign on stopping a second referendum. But it now looks very like the only way to deliver stability and clear the decks for economic and social rebirth is to have one.

For unionists, it is a high-risk strategy for obvious reasons, but the alternative is five more years of deflection and SNP avoidance of responsibility for the continued deterioration of key services. More concessions will not make a blind bit of difference.

We know Ms Sturgeon does not want a referendum now, and it was obvious why in every interview she gave, floundering when questions turned to currency and borders in a post-Brexit landscape very different to the 2014 arguments.

On top of the 25 per cent spending deficit it is now estimated Scotland is running, and the break-up of an internal market worth 60 per cent of Scottish trade, there is no economic Gordian Knot she can cut to demonstrate how separation is a risk worth taking. With five years to think about it, if she doesn’t have the answers now she’s not going to have them in the next six months.

The SNP and Greens have campaigned on the basis that Boris Johnson cannot ignore a majority of pro-independence MSPs by blocking another referendum, and a fight in the courts seems inevitable as long as that’s the position.

As former UK civil servant Ciaran Martin argued, such deeply divisive issues can’t be put off forever, certainly not by a judge. It has also been argued that Mr Johnson doesn’t need to hold a referendum because he can just ignore the demands until he isn’t Prime Minister anymore and it becomes someone else’s problem, but there is no better time to act when your opponent actually does not want what they are demanding.

If the UK government agrees to a referendum on condition it is held this year, it would put the SNP in the position of rejecting the opportunity to deliver its goal because it fears losing, and the First Minister telling her troops that now is not the time to have the vote for which she has spent her entire political life preparing.

The risks are obviously high, but in England anyway the Prime Minister has proven that despite his many personal failings he is a political winner. There is now not so much an opportunity for another victory to secure the future of the UK, but a necessity. The SNP’s bluff should be called.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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