LONDON – Hopes for a swift road to independence in Scotland were dampened on Saturday as the early election results showed that the dominant Scottish nationalist party was marginally outnumbered in the country’s parliament.
The results, if confirmed after the votes were fully counted by Saturday night, would deprive the Scottish National Party of a symbolic victory in a highly competitive election. This, in turn, should reinforce UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s determination to deny Scottish voters the option of a second referendum on independence.
However, pro-independence parties were on track to maintain overall control of what will keep the flame of Scottish nationalism alive and ensure that the threat of the Scottish breakout continues to weigh on the UK.
The number of seats the Scottish National Party won in Thursday’s election is in some ways less important than the political winds that are still blowing in favor of the separatists. By allying themselves with the independent Scottish Greens, the Scottish nationalists could tighten their control over the regional parliament.
Party leaders have signaled that they will put a second referendum high on the agenda after Scotland recovers from the coronavirus pandemic. When the Scots last voted on independence in 2014, they chose to stay in the UK by 55 to 45 percent. Polls show the question is now split almost 50:50, with support for the breakup having eased slightly in recent months.
While the Scottish nationalists are disappointed, the apparent lack of a clear majority could ultimately work to their advantage by giving them time to build support for a referendum rather than being stamped into an immediate campaign by the pressure of an overwhelming mandate.
Still, the result would be a relief for Mr Johnson, for whom the dissolution of the UK is a potentially defining event for his term in office. He remains deeply unpopular in Scotland and it is not clear how well prepared his government is to counter a revived quest for Scottish independence.
For his part, Mr Johnson basked in the Conservative Party’s victories in regional elections across England, which upset the opposition Labor Party and strengthened its reputation as a die-hard voter. However, part of the post-Brexit populism that won the conservative votes in parts of the working class in the Midlands and north of England worked against it in a more liberal and Brexit-averse Scotland.
On Friday, Mr Johnson vowed to reject the call for a referendum. When the UK emerged from the pandemic, the country should focus on rebuilding the economy rather than arguing over constitutional issues.
“I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and inconsiderate,” he said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. “I think there is no case for this now. I don’t think that’s what the times even ask for. “
Independence leaders like Scotland’s first female minister, Nicola Sturgeon, are unlikely to be deterred from pushing for another referendum. She and other officials were already claiming a mandate like the one in 2011, when the Scottish National Party last won an absolute majority and requested a referendum. Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, David Cameron, gave in to their request.
“He saw that there was a clear democratic mandate for it, and this time there will be another clear democratic mandate,” Lorna Slater, a leader of the Scottish Greens, told the BBC on Saturday. “What kind of country are we if we ignore such a democratic mandate?”
Analysts said the independence cause could be helped by a protracted battle with the Westminster government as it would alienate Scottish voters and potentially drive more of them into the separatist camp. There is also the prospect of bitter litigation that may end in the UK’s Supreme Court if the Scots threaten a referendum despite London.
“This is not a bad thing for the SNP because Nicola Sturgeon has said our priority is to solve Covid first,” said Nicola McEwen, Professor of Politics at the University of Edinburgh. The nationalists also had no “answers to difficult questions about what would happen to the border”.
The problems in Northern Ireland resulting from Brexit with hybrid status as part of the United Kingdom but no land border with the Republic of Ireland underscore the difficulties of a partial split in the Union. Economists warn that the cost of leaving Scotland would be very high.
The mood of independence in Scotland was fueled by the Brexit referendum in 2016, against which a majority of Scots voted. Many in Scotland would like to rejoin the European Union and see an independence referendum as a step in that direction.
This is one of the reasons Professor McEwen and other analysts predict that Scotland will not hold a “wildcat referendum” as the European Union and other governments are unlikely to recognize the results.
According to analysts, Mr Johnson would likely try to defuse the mood for independence by pouring money into Scotland. If the pressure continues to build, he could offer to delegate more authority to the Scottish government.
Under the UK’s limited self-government, the Scottish authorities are responsible for matters such as health and education, while the UK government is responsible for immigration, foreign and financial policy.
According to analysts, Mr. Johnson’s goal would be to gamble for time and delay any referendum until after the UK’s next general election, due to take place in 2024. But repeated rejections of Scottish calls could backfire.
“In Westminster, the view is that rejecting a referendum will only create a mood of independence,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk adviser. “This is not a problem that will go away. It just gets bigger over time. “
For Ms. Sturgeon, chairman of the Scottish National Party, it would still be disappointing not to win a clear majority. Such a mandate appeared to be within our grasp last summer when it gained control of Scotland over the coronavirus. This approach was more cautious than Mr. Johnson’s and appeared to produce better results at times.
But the successful launch of vaccines in the UK has blurred the differences and Scotland’s case and death rates, while slightly lower than in England, are no longer as far apart. Analysts cited the UK vaccine campaign as a factor in the slight decline in support for independence, which was over 50 percent in polls for most of the past year.
In addition, Ms. Sturgeon, 50, became embroiled in a bitter feud with her predecessor Alex Salmond for conducting an internal sexual misconduct investigation against him. She was accused of deceiving lawmakers, breaking rules and even conspiring against a former close ally, Mr. Salmond.
Ms. Sturgeon was freed from breaking the rules and misleading Parliament when the campaign began, but the dispute tarnished her image. Mr Salmond started a renegade party, Alba, which didn’t appear on track to win seats but served as a reminder of the internecine split.
“This year has been quite difficult for the SNP and for Nicola Sturgeon personally,” said Professor McEwen. She also added: “Britain’s broad shoulders have helped us weather the pandemic.”