UK election could strengthen SNP mandate for second independence vote

Brexit will dominate campaign, but in Scotland self-determination will be defining issue

Nicola Sturgeon: the SNP leader called Theresa May’s call for a general election a huge political miscalculation. Photograph: Andrew Testa/New York Times

While Theresa May was addressing the media in front of 10 Downing Street on Tuesday morning the Scottish government was holding its weekly cabinet meeting at Bute House, in central Edinburgh. The Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and her colleagues watched on television as the prime minister in London announced that she would like the UK to go to the polls on June 8th.

In Scotland, as elsewhere, Ms May's snap-election announcement was met with surprise. Routine Scottish government business was quickly put on hold. Within minutes Ms Sturgeon tweeted that the Conservatives were trying to "force through a hard Brexit".

The UK's departure from the European Union is set to dominate the election campaign. But in Scotland independence will be the defining issue. A clear majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU, but the nation is evenly divided on leaving the United Kingdom.

The Scottish National Party won all but three of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in 2015, but unionist parties will be hoping to attract voters deterred by the prospect of a second independence referendum.


Last month Ms Sturgeon's minority SNP administration voted to demand the powers to hold a second referendum on leaving the UK between autumn 2018 and spring 2019. Ms May has said that such a vote before Brexit would be destabilising.

Reacting to Ms May’s announcement, Ms Sturgeon said the election would be about “standing up for Scotland in the face of a right-wing, austerity-obsessed Tory government with no mandate in Scotland but which now thinks it can do whatever it wants and get away with it”, adding that the prime minister had made a “huge political miscalculation”.

The leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, welcomed the general-election announcement, saying it was an opportunity to "send a strong message that we oppose the SNP's divisive plan for a second referendum".

The election is a big gamble for the Tories, particularly in Scotland, where the party has been painstakingly building a platform as the largest opposition group

But the election is a big gamble for the Tories, particularly in Scotland, where the party has been painstakingly building a platform as the largest opposition group. If the SNP wins a big majority of seats in June it will be held up by nationalists as evidence of a mandate for a second independence vote.

The SNP could struggle to keep all its seats, but significant losses appear unlikely. "I would be surprised if the SNP didn't hang on to most of the seats north of the border that they won two years ago," Prof John Curtice, an election expert at Strathclyde University, said.

A key challenge for the nationalists is voter fatigue – Scots face their sixth big poll in less than three years – and resources. Significant energy, and cash, has been ploughed into council elections that take place on May 4th, with the SNP expectant of finally taking control of Glasgow and other former Labour heartlands in the west of Scotland.

The general election could prove painful for Labour, the one-time "party of Scotland". Its leader in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale said Scots had a choice between a "Tory Party intent on a hard and damaging Brexit or a Labour Party that will oppose a second independence referendum and fight for a better future for everybody". But few expect Labour to regain any of the 40 Westminster seats it lost in 2015.

How the unionist vote splits could be crucial. Polls suggest the Conservatives are best placed to catch the SNP, but will voters who opposed independence and Brexit vote for the Tories? Elsewhere, will fishing communities in the northeast switch swing behind Ms May’s party?

The SNP has said that the party manifesto will set out in more detail the specifics of the independence pitch, including on EU membership.

A further announcement on plans for a second referendum was due shortly, but this has been postponed. “There is no UK government to talk to,” Ms Sturgeon said on Tuesday.

That will not stop the conversation around independence. "If this snap general election is a new referendum on Brexit, then it also looks like a new referendum on independence," the columnist Iain Macwhirter wrote in the Glasgow Herald.

Theresa May has called for a general election to seek a mandate to deliver on Brexit. The vote will likely deliver both that and, in the process, another significant SNP victory. The calls for another independence referendum could become even harder to ignore after June 8th.