On Tuesday, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the finishing touches to his not-so-new Cabinet, he gave his clearest indication yet that with a new shiny mandate in hand, he intends to use the prospect of a Brexit cliff-edge at the end of 2020 to demand a comprehensive free trade deal with the European Union (EU).
These free trade agreements normally take years to hammer out. A buoyant Johnson, however, believes it can be done in the 11 months beginning on February 1, the first day the United Kingdom is out of the EU, and December 31, 2020 — when he has said the transition period will end.
With a majority of 80 seats at Westminster, Johnson has certainly every reason to be buoyant: It’s just that Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is carrying a very large needle indeed and is fully intent on sticking it to Johnson when it comes to Scottish independence. And he’s not the only one with a rather large mandate either.
Should Johnson indeed push ahead with an end-of-2020 exit from all things EU, then all eyes will be on the Scottish parliament elections due in the spring of 2021. A big SNP win then gives Sturgeon weight to claim the moral and political right for that second independence referendum — and that a sovereign Scotland would gain fast-track access to the EU once more
Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) took 48 of the 59 seats in Scotland, an increase of 13 seats over its 2017 election showing. Seven of those seats were gained at the expense of Johnson’s Conservatives, who saw its 13 seats won there in 2017 reduced by more than half. And when it came to the popular vote, the SNP were rampant. It got 45 per cent of votes cast, just under 1,242,400 — an increase of more than 246,000 voters of 8.1 per cent on 2017.
The Conservatives? The party’s share of the popular vote was down 3.5 per cent on 2017, with 65,000 fewer Scots backing it. Just under 693,000 voters put an ‘X’ beside Tory candidates last week, with the party getting 25.1 per cent of ballots north of the border.
Done and dusted
Simply put, Scots are resolute supporters of the EU if not necessarily Scottish independence. But the harder and quicker Johnson pushes for everything to be done and dusted with Brussels, the more he is alienating Scottish voters.
Sturgeon is wasting no time in laying out the case for Scottish independence and getting a new referendum on the question of Scotland going it alone. Johnson has repeatedly said that the 2014 independence referendum settled the question for a generation when Scots rejected the option by 55 to 45 per cent.
But that 2014 poll seems so long ago now — and Brexit has changed everything. Scots voted by 62 per cent in the EU plebiscite to Remain. Opinion polls taken since then only point to that figure rising over the past three-and-a-half years.
It’s interesting to note that the transformation in SNP fortunes came largely as a result of the Margaret Thatcher years, a time when Scots returned Labour members of parliament by droves and felt ignored and isolated by a government in London seemingly hell-bent on destroying traditional Scottish industries, shipyards and coal mines. Johnson’s 80-seat majority is the largest since Thatcher’s 1987 general election victory — and once more Scots say their voices are being silenced and fall on deaf ears in London. And the SNP argues that Brexit fundamentally changes the political relationship between the two nations.
As the law stands at present, Scotland and its parliament at Holyrood need permission of the parliament in Westminster to hold another referendum. That’s why Sturgeon plans to submit a formal request to demand those powers, under Section 30 of the Scotland Act, to ensure any vote was legal.
However, the UK government has said it will reject any request, and a similar request was turned down after Holyrood approved plans in 2017 for a new independence vote.
The SNP bloc of 48 seats would certainly have been useful if last week’s election resulted in a hung parliament — and we all know how that turned out.
Should Johnson indeed push ahead with an end-of-2020 exit from all things EU, then all eyes will be on the Scottish parliament elections due in the spring of 2021. A big SNP win then gives Sturgeon weight to claim the moral and political right for that second independence referendum — and that a sovereign Scotland would gain fast-track access to the EU once more.
Last month, Johnson’s top minister in Scotland admitted that if the SNP indeed wins a majority in Holyrood in 2021 this would constitute a “democratic mandate” for another vote.
Sturgeon can also go the legal route, challenging the clause of the Scotland Act of 1998 that set up the parliament there, that states that the union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England is a matter reserved for Westminster. Already Scottish legal scholars — and some south of the border too — argue Holyrood could have the power to call a referendum on its own.
And if all else fails, there’s always the Catalonia option. Imagine Spain vetoing Scotland’s re-entry into the EU on the basis of an illegal regional referendum. Oh, the irony!