Scottish Nationalist Victory Sets Up Standoff Over Independence

Rodney Jefferson and Alastair Reed

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson may be celebrating a stunning election victory, but another leader also scored an emphatic win -- and it’s one that promises to set up a renewed clash over the U.K.’s future.

The Scottish National Party took back most of the districts it lost two years ago. Such a dramatic outcome –- winning 48 of the 59 seats available in Scotland -– will galvanize the party in its pursuit of the independence referendum leader Nicola Sturgeon says is necessary after her country opposed leaving the European Union.

Johnson, like his predecessor Theresa May, has consistently resisted pressure from the SNP-led administration in Edinburgh for another independence vote. But the last one, when Scots chose to stay in the U.K. in 2014, was before the vote to leave the EU. Sturgeon made stopping Brexit and giving Scotland the right to dictate its own future the cornerstone of her party’s campaign.

“Johnson has a mandate for Brexit and Sturgeon has a mandate for Scottish independence,” said Simon Hix, professor of political science at the London School of Economics. “We are heading towards a new constitutional crisis, which won’t be resolved easily in the next few years.”

The SNP gained 13 seats, while Johnson’s Conservatives lost seven and Labour lost six to hold a solitary district in a country it dominated for most of the postwar period. The SNP held others with increased majorities and even took the seat of Liberal Democrat Party Leader Jo Swinson.

“It shows the divergent paths that Scotland and the rest of the U.K. are on,” Sturgeon told the BBC from Glasgow. “It’s still my plan to submit an official request before the end of the year for a new independence referendum.”

In Northern Ireland, pressure is also likely to grow for a referendum on unity with the Republic of Ireland, as nationalists made advances and unionist parties lost their majority.

The SNP’s victory was noted elsewhere in Europe, with the head of the separatist administration of Catalonia tweeting his congratulations.

BBC Scotland News @BBCScotlandNewsNicola Sturgeon says the SNP’s landslide victory at the general election in Scotland is a ‘mandate for indyref2’ bbc.in/2RNC6KP #GE2019 #BBCElectionhttp://twitter.com/BBCScotlandNews/statuses/1205386765135237120

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The election painted the opposite picture to 2017, when Theresa May ended up needing the dozen seats the Conservatives won from the SNP to remain in power. The nationalists lost more districts than they expected as then Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson rallied opposition to another vote on leaving the three-centuries-old U.K. Davidson quit this year when Johnson became leader of the party nationally.

The result means more SNP supporters will be agitating for Sturgeon to demand an independence vote –- regardless of whether the U.K. government acquiesces to one, a legal requirement. Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s justice minister, said that the referendum in 2014 was the “gold standard” and that Scotland would seek the legal agreement for a repeat vote next year.

While polls have typically shown an independence referendum would be too close to call, two recent surveys gave a clear lead for sticking with the U.K. An SNP election victory would make the party’s army of activists more confident they can narrow the gap. Scottish Parliamentary elections are also due in 2021, when the SNP could reinforce its mandate for a referendum.

“If Sturgeon wins big again in May 2021, Johnson will be unable to resist a second independence referendum,” said Hix.

To contact the reporters on this story: Rodney Jefferson in Edinburgh at r.jefferson@bloomberg.net;Alastair Reed in Edinburgh at areed12@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, Thomas Penny, Robert Hutton

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