Scottish Election 2021 results: SNP’s mandate for referendum beyond dispute as Boris Johnson deepens trenches

The campaign is over. Let the campaign begin.

Depending on your political hue, the news may bring cheer or dismay, but the results of the Holyrood elections guarantees the clash of wills between Edinburgh and Westminster over a second independence referendum is about to intensify.

The SNP’s manifesto explicitly promised that if it was returned to power, and there is a simple majority support for its referendum bill in Holyrood’s sixth parliamentary term, no justification exists to deny a vote on Scotland’s constitutional future.

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With that threshold met, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s continuing refusal to grant a section 30 order will likely prove increasingly unsustainable. The longer it is maintained, the more it will undermine the union and bolster support for independence.

The fact the SNP failed to command an outright majority will embolden Mr Johnson to deepen the trenches further, particularly after Tory gains in England. But the idea the SNP’s inability to secure 65 seats blunts its ability to pursue a referendum will stoke anger.

The Conservatives have defined the narrative around what constitutes a mandate, and its insistence on a majority is not an argument devoid of merit, given the first referendum was granted after the SNP’s watershed 2011 victory.

Framing that as a precedent, however, amounts to little more than canny politicking. No party is the arbiter of legitimacy in a parliamentary democracy.

The SNP’s returns only constitute a failure when viewed in the context set out by its opponents.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned last night that any attempt by Westminster to legally block a referendum would be a powerful argument for independence. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/GettyFirst Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned last night that any attempt by Westminster to legally block a referendum would be a powerful argument for independence. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned last night that any attempt by Westminster to legally block a referendum would be a powerful argument for independence. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Discerning nationalists could point to its constituency gains and historic vote share – trends all the more impressive for a party in power for 14 years in a proportional electoral system.

They could also argue a Holyrood alliance with the Scottish Greens provides a weightier share of the popular vote.

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Both parties campaigned on the basis that a pro-independence majority would be sufficient to seek a referendum. That scenario has come to pass. Attempts to deny it, Ms Sturgeon said on Saturday night, were “outrageous”.

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Of course, an election is not a vote on independence, and the challenges posed by the pandemic – a priority among many voters - underscore the dangers of presuming constitutional concerns trump all others.

The critical line of thought which asserts that some who voted SNP did so for reasons other than independence is valid. Equally, a sizeable minority of those who voted for unionist parties do not necessarily agree with their constitutional stance.

So where lies the land? It is all, but a foregone conclusion that Mr Johnson will refuse a section 30 order, and the SNP’s referendum bill will be ratified by Holyrood. After that, expect wagon circling and legal challenges which end up in the Supreme Court, where the odds are stacked in the UK Government’s favour.

Ultimately, however, the battle to settle Scotland’s constitutional future is a political one. Both the SNP and the Conservative government at Westminster have mandates, but one does not cancel the other out, and the impasse brought about by a devolved legislature in a unitary state cannot last indefinitely.

The unionist parties cannot rely on the same old specious arguments if they hope to preserve the status quo.

Douglas Ross and others persist in warning of a wildcat referendum, despite the fact Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly ruled it out. She knows that in the eyes of the international community – and the EU in particular – the legitimacy of a referendum depends on Westminster’s consent.

The comprehensive electoral defeat of Alex Salmond’s Alba Party will ease pressure on the SNP to chase a so-called plan B from impatient occupants of the independence movement’s fringes.

Like Ms Sturgeon, Patrick Harvie, co-convenor of the Scottish Greens, believes there is no viable shortcut.

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“If you want Scotland to become independent rather than just going through the theatrics of it, you need to have a process that will be widely accepted,” he said.

Similarly, the Tories’ oft-repeated line that 2014 was a “once-in-a-generation” event has run out of steam. The SNP has been re-elected twice since; intransigent soundbites merely ignore a renewed democratic mandate in a new, post-Brexit political reality.

One Tory source admitted its messaging had to change, with a focus on waning momentum for independence in opinion polls. That strategy was aided by an unlikely source on Saturday night, with the SNP’s John Mason stating that he wanted to see 70 per cent support in the polls before any vote.

Mr Johnson may even try to have his cake and eat it, acceding to the SNP’s demands, yet extending the franchise to Scots across the UK.

This would represent a major redrawing of the 2014 battle lines, yet the Edinburgh Agreement was never intended to be an unalterable framework by which future referendums must be conducted. Remember, too, that Whitehall gave serious consideration to running the 2014 plebiscite on its terms.

Among the independence movement, cards are being kept close to chests, though one newly re-elected SNP figure predicted a shift towards weaponising Mr Johnson’s position to win over those who voted no in 2014.

“The key is showing the UK Government is so scared of losing the union, it is prepared to destroy the devolution settlement,” the figure said.

In Glasgow, Ms Sturgeon said any legal attempts by Westminster to block a referendum would represent an argument for independence unprecedented in its power.

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For his part, Mr Harvie said the longer the stalemate drags on, the better it is for the independence camp. He was not drawn on the repercussions of any Westminster legal challenge to a Holyrood referendum bill, insisting: “We can’t read the tea leaves.”

Indeed, a lot can change in the months and years ahead. What would become of the current holding pattern, for example, were Mr Johnson no longer in Downing Street? Such a proposition is not so fanciful as it might have seemed a few weeks ago.

Scotland, then, has spoken, but the ifs, buts and maybes remain.

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