Scotland to legislate for independence referendum, Sturgeon tells Johnson

SNP wins 64 seats in parliament, which with Greens has its biggest ever independence majority

Nicola Sturgeon has told Boris Johnson that she will legislate for a second independence referendum after her Scottish National Party (SNP) won a fourth term in office, and a pro-independence majority was returned to the Holyrood parliament.

The SNP won 64 seats in last Thursday's election, one short of an overall majority, but the pro-independence Green Party won eight seats so the new parliament has its biggest ever majority in favour of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom.

“The first minister made clear that her immediate focus was on steering the country through Covid and into recovery, and that a newly-elected Scottish government would work with the UK government as far as possible on that aim,” Ms Sturgeon’s spokeswoman said after a call between the first minister and the British prime minister on Sunday evening.

“The first minister also reiterated her intention to ensure that the people of Scotland can choose our own future when the crisis is over, and made clear that the question of a referendum is now a matter of when – not if.”

Thursday's election saw the Conservatives remain Scotland's second largest party with 31 seats, followed by Labour with 22. The Liberal Democrats won four seats, but former first minister Alex Salmond's new pro-independence Alba party failed to take any seats.

The SNP and the Greens both promised in their manifestos to legislate for a second independence referendum within the next five-year parliamentary term. But Ms Sturgeon has made clear that her immediate priority is the post-coronavirus recovery so she will not press for a referendum immediately.

Court challenge

Under the terms of Britain's devolution settlement, any legally binding referendum requires the consent of the Westminster parliament and Mr Johnson has until now ruled out a second independence vote for at least a generation. On Sunday, cabinet office minister Michael Gove declined to rule out a second referendum within the next five years or to commit to challenging in court any poll Ms Sturgeon calls.

"The priority at the moment is not court cases, it's not independence legislation, it is recovery from the pandemic. And to be fair to the first minister, to be fair to Nicola Sturgeon, during the course of this election campaign she said that was the single most important thing that we should all be concentrating on. And we should work together as Team UK in order to deal with the pandemic," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr show.

Mr Gove said Scotland had the right to leave the UK but he suggested that the SNP’s failure to win an overall majority on its own meant that Ms Sturgeon could not claim the same mandate for a referendum as Mr Salmond had after he led the party to an overall majority in 2011. But Ms Sturgeon said that any attempt by the British government to block a second independence referendum would fly in the face of the democratic wishes of the Scottish people.

“This whole debate is predicated on a situation where a UK government refuses to accept Scottish democracy. And what that means is that you have a UK government that is saying that the UK is no longer a union based on consent, that it is no longer a voluntary union, that somehow Scotland is to be retained within that union by force of law. Now if that is the argument then we are going into unprecedented territory and Michael Gove was at pains to say that Scotland of course did have the democratic right, if it choose so, to become independent,” she said.

“If the argument of the unionist side is that Scotland is trapped, then it strikes me that that is one of the strongest arguments for independence.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times