After the British general election on Thursday, London is on a collision course with Edinburgh, as the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon has announced a formal request for a new referendum to break away from the UK. However, Prime Minister Johnson continues to oppose the plan and is unlikely to grant a referendum.
It would be the second referendum since 2014. That year, 55 percent of Scots had voted against the separation from the United Kingdom. Sturgeon argues, however, that the Scots’ majority voted in favor of remaining in the UK and the EU. The situation had changed with the EU referendum in 2016, in which Scotland voted to remain.
Moreover, Sturgeon has been impelled by her party’s election result, where it obtained 48 of the 59 seats available in Scotland. The landslide victory was providing a new mandate for a second referendum on Scottish independence. However, one problem remains. For a referendum to be conducted, Johnson’s approval is required under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
Meanwhile, Sturgeon emphasized she was not asking for permission but asserting the right of the Scots to determine their independence and thus their future.
However, Johnson had emphasized his opposition for a second referendum on Friday night, when one of his spokesmen called Sturgeon to deliver the message. After all, the 2014 result was clear, and it ought to be respected.
Johnson, who must have anticipated this scenario and knew what would be at stake, published a comment in a Scottish newspaper prior to the election in which he ensured the Scottish public that he was a Unionist “to the bone,” who would do everything he could to ensure that the United Kingdom would not break apart under his leadership.
It is a situation that could become a considerable nuisance for Johnson, who, after endless EU negotiations, is facing the next conflict from within and not from Brussels. In any case, Sturgeon will have no interest in pouring water on Scotland’s independency momentum and will likely further exacerbate the situation. However, it is doubtful whether a few thousand people demonstrating on Scotland’s streets will persuade Johnson to grant what Sturgeon is demanding. The risk is too significant, the possible consequences for the United Kingdom too epochal. Thus, the question is, what would have to happen for Johnson to succumb?
He has witnessed a blueprint – though a somewhat suboptimal one in Spain over these last years. Here, the Catalans demanded independence from Spain and were severely hindered by the Spanish government, including the Constitutional Court ruling against a referendum held in Catalonia in 2017. As a result, the fronts have been hardened fronts and wounds, the healing of which will take years, perhaps decades.
Johnson will, therefore, have to put Scotland on the agenda as soon as practicable to nip Sturgeon’s plan in the bud. To do this, he will undoubtedly utilize the following facts: Scotland would not automatically become a member of the EU if it left the United Kingdom, however, would have to participate in an admission procedure that could last years. The latter will only be possible after leaving the United Kingdom, and ergo would leave Scotland practically out by itself in Europe.
Communicating this scenario and making it appear as unattractive as possible will be Johnson’s ultima ratio. Whether it can be sufficient will be seen in the next few weeks, as it will display how great the urge of the Scottish population for independence is.