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Britain Decides: Battle lines drawn for Scotland’s second independence referendum

Both Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon are preparing to go head-to-head in Scottish elections in 2021

First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, joins the SNPs newly elected MPs for a group photo outside the V&A Museum on December 14, 2019 in Dundee, Scotland Getty Images
First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, joins the SNPs newly elected MPs for a group photo outside the V&A Museum on December 14, 2019 in Dundee, Scotland Getty Images

In modern electoral politics as one campaign ends the next begins and, fresh from victory at the polls, Britain’s two most successful politicians are manoeuvring for their next battle at the ballot box.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have emerged from Thursday’s poll triumphant.

Mr Johnson and his centre-right Conservative Party, which won a decisive 365 seats in the UK parliament, have a mandate to finalise Britain’s exit from the EU.

Ms Sturgeon, whose pro-Independence Scottish National Party (SNP) have won 48 seats north of the border in a similarly overwhelming victory, is staking her claim to a mandate for a politically independent Scotland.

The pair are on a collision course and the first point of contact will be Scotland’s 2021 elections to its devolved parliament at Holyrood.

Scotland’s first minister has said she will publish next week her detailed case for a second independence referendum, a rerun of the 2014 plebiscite in which Scottish voters dismissed the prospect of leaving the UK by a margin of 55 to 45 per cent.

Ms Sturgeon knows there is no time to lose as she leverages her position for 2021.

The two leaders on Friday spoke to one another laying out their positions. Downing Street briefed that Mr Johnson had been resolute. He would not grant a referendum. Ms Sturgeon tweeted in response that the SNP mandate to “give people a choice must be respected”.

As he prepares for 2021, Mr Johnson is reportedly planning a charm offensive in Scotland. The Telegraph reported the prime minister contacted senior Scottish Conservatives following his Thursday general election victory to make plans.

He is hoping the alchemy he has worked in across swathes of working class constituencies in the north of England in the most recent election can be replicated in Scotland. It remains to be seen how effective that gambit will be.

Mr Johnson does not hold his trump Brexit card in Scotland. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union in 2016 by a margin of 62 to 38 per cent. And while many traditional Labour voters in the north of England appear to have consigned the collective trauma of de-industrialisation under the Tories to the past, the ghost of Thatcherism in the 1970s and 80s still looms large in the Scottish consciousness.

Both leaders will hope time is on their side. Ms Sturgeon’s prospects of breaking apart the 300-year-old union becomes much harder once the terms of Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union has been agreed.

“Once the UK has left the EU, independence becomes much more difficult technically and economically,” Thomas Raines, the head of Chatham House’s Europe programme wrote in his response to the UK election results.

“This is particularly true if there is a harder Brexit outcome, where Britain leaves the EU without a large amount of regulatory alignment,” he added.

For the time being, Mr Johnson will hope he can kick the can down the road on independence. In 2014 both London and Edinburgh, the seat of the Scottish government, agreed to the terms of the referendum. For a while at least, Number 10 can simply refuse to grant a second referendum but the line Mr Johnson must walk is razor thin.

Ms Sturgeon will hope the prime minister’s intransigence on a second independence referendum will drive voters towards her cause. Despite the SNP’s overwhelming win in the general election, pro-union parties still won the majority of the popular vote.

If Britain has learned one lesson in the last three years it is that referenda on such overriding, existential issues can be poison to the political culture of a nation. There is a possibility the kind of toxic standoff that exists between Madrid and Barcelona over Catalan independence could be repeated in Britain as London and Glasgow, where the great weight of Scottish pro-independence of sentiment resides, engage in a dangerous tug of war.

Updated: December 14, 2019 06:23 PM

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