© Reuters. Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrives at the Glasgow Counting Center at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, Scotland, UK on May 7, 2021. Jeff J Mitchell / Pool via REUTERS
By Russell Cheyne
GLASGOW, Scotland (Reuters) – The independence parties won a majority in the Scottish Parliament on Saturday, paving the way for a political, legal and constitutional battle with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the future of the United Kingdom.
The first Scottish minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said the result means she will move forward with plans for a second independence referendum once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, adding that it would be absurd and outrageous for Johnson to try to ignore the democratic will of the people.
"There is simply no democratic justification for Boris Johnson or anyone else who is trying to block the Scottish people's right to choose our own future," said Sturgeon.
"It's the will of the country," she added after her Scottish National Party (SNP) was in office for the fourth year in a row.
The UK government argues that Johnson must vote in favor of any referendum, and it has made it clear repeatedly that he would oppose it. He said it was irresponsible to hold one now, pointing out that in a 2014 "once in a generation" poll, Scots supported a stay in the UK.
The election result is likely to be a bitter conflict between the Scottish government in Edinburgh and Johnson's British government in London, with Scotland's 314-year union with England and Wales at stake.
The nationalists argue that they have democratic authority on their side; The UK government says the law is with them. It is likely that the final decision on a referendum will be taken in court.
"RESPONSIBLE AND RECKLESS"
"I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and inconsiderate," Johnson told the Daily Telegraph.
Alister Jack, the Scottish Minister for the UK Government, said addressing the coronavirus crisis and getting vaccines up and running should be a priority.
"We must not allow ourselves to be distracted – recovering from COVID must be the sole priority of the two Scottish governments," he said.
The SNP had hoped to win a full majority, which would have reinforced their call for a secession vote, but it appeared to have one seat below the 65 in the Scottish Parliament with 129 seats, thanks in part to an electoral system that helps smaller parties .
Union-friendly supporters argue that the SNP's failure to obtain a majority made it easier for Johnson to disprove their argument that they have a mandate for a referendum.
However, the Scottish Greens, who have promised to support a referendum, have won eight seats, which means there will be a comfortable majority in favor of independence in the Scottish Assembly as a whole.
Scottish politics have been different from other parts of the UK for some time, but Scots remain divided over holding another referendum on independence.
The UK's exit from the European Union – against which the majority of Scots are opposed – as well as the perception that the Sturgeon administration coped well with the COVID-19 crisis and the aversion to the Conservative administration of Johnson in London have support for the independence strengthened movement.
Scots voted 55% to 45% to remain part of the UK in 2014 and polls suggest that a second referendum would be too close to call.
Sturgeon said her first job would be fighting the pandemic, and the SNP had indicated that a referendum was unlikely by 2023. However, she said that any legal challenge to the vote by the Johnson administration would mean a total disregard for Scottish democracy.
"Given the absurdity and insolence of a Westminster government that may go to court to overthrow Scottish democracy, I cannot think of a more colorful argument for Scottish independence than this," she said.