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Mujtaba Rahman is the head of Eurasia Group’s Europe practice and the author of POLITICO’s Beyond the Bubble column. He tweets at @Mij_Europe.
Forget today’s Scottish election. The real battle is still to come.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s problems over allegations of sleaze, coronavirus and even Brexit will soon be dwarfed by an even bigger crisis: the need to fight to prevent the United Kingdom from falling apart.
In today’s highly consequential Scottish elections, it is almost certain that a majority of Scottish members of parliament in favor of independence will be elected, even if it is less clear whether the Scottish National Party will win an outright majority under its own steam. For U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson this will present a real problem: a parliament at Holyrood claiming a mandate for another independence referendum.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would certainly prefer her party to win an outright majority. She could then cite the precedent of her party’s 2011 majority, which forced then U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to concede and allow a 2014 referendum on independence.
But with polls on a knife edge, SNP strategists have privately been discussing a fallback plan if the party falls narrowly short of a majority under its own colors: forming a coalition with the pro-independence Greens, who will likely improve on their current five MSPs and do better than former SNP leader Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party, which is struggling to make an impact.
After the last Scottish elections in 2016, the SNP opted to govern as a minority administration but could rely on the Greens in crucial votes. The thinking now is that forming a coalition in which Green MSPs took up ministerial posts would pile more pressure on Johnson to concede a referendum, as he would then be faced with a pro-independence government as well as parliament.
How will Johnson react? In London, the prime minister’s aides are rehearsing their lines for the war of words that will follow the elections. In the first instance, Johnson will resist, arguing that it would be “reckless” to have the distraction of a referendum during the coronavirus pandemic.
This will buy him a little time; Sturgeon has also promised not to seek a public vote until the coronavirus crisis has passed. As Westminster must approve a fresh plebiscite, Johnson will also resist the SNP’s demands for another one on the grounds that the nationalists accepted that the 2014 verdict — a 55 percent to 45 percent vote to remain in the United Kingdom — was a once-in-a-generation event.
U.K. ministers will also try to throw money at the Scottish problem. Billions for road, rail and other infrastructure projects will be channelled to the country under central government powers in the Internal Market Act. Scottish hospitals would be allowed to send more patients to England to help them tackle their COVID-19 backlog. The NHS is seen by ministers as an “advert for the union;” the vaccine rollout has won unionist parties some precious brownie points.
Another leg of the Tories’ Scotland strategy will be the timing of the next British general election. Although insiders insist no substantive discussion about the date has taken place, there are signs that Johnson is keen to keep open the option of holding the contest in 2023 rather than 2024, when his term would run out.
This would require him to repeal the Fixed-terms Parliament Act, but the thinking goes that year difference would make it easier to hold off calls for a second Scottish referendum. Johnson will be hoping that the SNP loses seats in a general election and that the Tories sweep back to power on a manifesto pledging to retain the union — allowing him to claim a fresher mandate than that provided to the SNP by today’s vote.
Will this all be enough? Probably not. Senior ministers accept the above strategy is merely a holding position; repeatedly denying a referendum will simply play into Sturgeon’s hands by fuelling nationalism and her anti-Westminster narrative and building even more support for independence.
The Tories might try to counter by offering to hand more powers to the Holyrood parliament, but it’s unlikely that this would halt the nationalists’ tide. Whatever Johnson offered, Sturgeon would demand more.
Johnson won’t be the only one feeling the heat over a referendum. If London keeps denying a vote, Sturgeon will come under intense pressure from SNP activists and Salmond to start the ball rolling by introducing legislation in the Holyrood parliament allowing for one. The U.K. government would then challenge this in the courts, on the grounds the constitution is a “reserved matter” under the control of Westminster — in other words, that a referendum needs to be approved in London.
No matter how this plays out, both sides privately acknowledge the dispute over a referendum will at some point probably end up in the Supreme Court. Although U.K. ministers have received legal advice that the courts would rule in their favour, a victory in the courts would not resolve the Scottish question and might only delay the inevitable.
Why? An unfavorable ruling for Sturgeon would mount pressure on her to hold a “wildcat” referendum. She is of course wary of that route, because it would risk losing legitimacy in the eyes of other countries and, crucially, the EU, which the SNP wants to rejoin. And it would not offer certainty since the Scottish Conservatives would probably boycott it.
An alternative option favored by some Sturgeon allies is an “advisory” referendum that could put pressure on Westminster to allow an official one. This would be less confrontational, and portrayed as a way of testing Scottish opinion. The U.K. government would be nervous; a consultative vote would offer Scots a “free hit” without worrying about the consequences of independence at that stage.
The “Scottish problem,” as it is known in Whitehall, is not going away. So the big question U.K. ministers have to answer is this: What is the legal route to Scottish independence if that is the will of the Scottish people? The government doesn’t yet have an answer. It needs to develop one fast.