Scottish voters could have lit the fuse for a brand new UK constitutional disaster however this can be a confrontation with a really sluggish burn.
The Scottish elections have returned a parliamentary majority for a second independence referendum and separatists will now declare a mandate to demand a vote — a declare Boris Johnson is refusing to simply accept.
In a system which makes an outright victory very tough to safe, the Scottish National party has fallen just short of a parliamentary majority, weakening its ethical argument. However with the Scottish Greens additionally supporting independence, separatists have the numbers in Holyrood, the Scottish parliament, to again a second referendum. But there’s more likely to be a protracted phoney battle earlier than any such vote takes place.
Westminster has the ultimate say on whether or not to grant a authorized referendum and Johnson has made it clear he’ll refuse to agree to 1. The UK prime minister will sofa his refusal, not within the language of absolute obstruction however within the argument that now is just not the time. His line, that Scotland, like the remainder of the UK should not be distracted whereas it’s nonetheless recovering from the pandemic will carry weight with voters which is why the SNP’s chief and returned first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has made the identical argument. However not like Johnson she sees delay as minimal and can quickly search the powers to carry a referendum, organising a constitutional conflict which can properly find yourself within the UK’s Supreme Court docket.
The Tory technique is pretty clear. Stonewall for so long as doable, play up the advantages of the Union and channel funds north of the border. Brexit, which Scotland rejected by two to 1, has powered separatist sentiment and has added a share of union-backing stay voters to the independence camp.
That Scottish independence is once more a stay challenge simply seven years after the final referendum is a direct consequence of Brexit, which makes it all of the extra essential to Johnson that he not preside over the disintegration of the UK. His hope will likely be that delay helps the Brexit wounds heal sufficient for these voters to change again to the unionist camp.
Whereas the Holyrood arithmetic is undeniable, the shortage of an outright SNP majority helps Johnson’s technique. However whereas Tories insist they won’t accede to a different referendum, privately many settle for they can not indefinitely defy a majority of Scottish voters and that — to be seen to be doing so could improve the separatist vote. Finally, until the SNP tide recedes the ethical case for an additional vote will finally be irresistible. The union has to exist by consent.
However delay additionally gives challenges for Sturgeon since, in defiance of her personal hardliners, she doesn’t wish to maintain an unlawful referendum which, by conjuring up photos of Catalonia, might harm an unbiased Scotland’s prospects of EU membership. To that finish she will likely be shedding few tears over the failure of Alex Salmond’s breakaway party Alba to win a seat. Her problem is to maintain the pot simmering with out letting it boil over. The Tories’ hope is that their delaying techniques will pressure her to miscalculate.
Even so, obstructionism will go well with Sturgeon. After a future of opinion ballot leads for independence, the hole has now closed and the polls are at the moment too tight for her to be assured of victory. A yr or two of London obduracy — of what she’s going to depict as England and Johnson ignoring the Scottish folks — could assist her whip up help.
She’s going to search methods to amplify the grievance in opposition to London’s obstruction, most likely by legislating for a referendum and defying London to problem this within the courts. Against this Johnson, whereas refusing a vote, will wish to appear emollient, conciliatory and visibly search to contain Scotland (and Wales) in UK-wide choices. On Saturday he invited the re-elected first ministers of each nations to a summit to debate the challenges forward.
Sturgeon’s main strategic success via the pandemic was projecting a picture of assured management, which might reassure wavering Scots that it has rulers who can cope in a disaster. One can argue over the truth of Scotland’s efficiency however it’s unarguable that she emerged enhanced from the disaster and she or he stays the SNP’s finest weapon.
The important thing query for Tories is when and if they’ve to simply accept a second vote and what techniques they’d then deploy. They don’t must convert diehard separatists, simply win again a sliver of waverers. These are the folks Johnson should hope to win again, however they’re additionally amongst these least inclined to his charms since they blame him for Brexit.
Johnson will maintain out in opposition to a referendum so long as doable — the easiest way for him to win this combat is to keep away from it altogether. But when he’s pressured to conform to a brand new ballot, there are three principal playing cards to play. They will and can use central authorities funding to indicate the worth of the union. They could supply much more devolved powers, although this may by no means be sufficient to fulfill nationalists. And eventually, they’ll demand a full and detailed programme on how independence would work, upfront of the vote to allow them to then try to choose holes in it. Key questions can be how Scotland can afford to be unbiased, given the collapse of oil revenues, what the foreign money can be and the way it could handle a tough border with England if it rejoins the EU.
In fact, Brexiters know higher than anybody that such sensible questions will be trumped by nationalist sentiment. It’s an irony that any future contest will invert the Brexit contest with the SNP making the emotional, nationalist enchantment, and the Tories arguing on financial grounds.
However that is for the long run. The Scottish election heralds a brand new battle over the way forward for the UK however there will likely be a prolonged bout of shadow boxing earlier than we get near an finish sport.