The prospects of a new referendum on Scottish independence are paradoxically improved by the resounding Conservative Party victory in the U.K.’s general elections Thursday -- despite the party’s warnings that only a Tory government could help keep the country intact. The Scottish National Party (SNP), also riding the political wave of its historic showing in the elections, would be poised to bring Scotland closer to another referendum should pressure build in response to unpopular policies adopted by the new Conservative majority in Parliament, experts said.
“The Conservatives have the majority, so they now have a free rein to implement their policy agenda, and that policy agenda has been firmly rejected in Scotland,” said Craig McAngus, a research fellow at the Center on Constitutional Change in Edinburgh, Scotland. “The SNP will almost certainly say this is not what the people of Scotland voted for.”
While Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives were able to secure 331 of 650 seats in the House of Commons for an electoral victory that lets them rule alone with no coalition partners, they scooped up only one of the 59 available seats in Scotland, where their party is deeply unpopular. The largely progressive slant of Scottish voters has made Conservative policies like those associated with austerity similarly unpopular. Accordingly, those voters opted to support the SNP, the main proponent of Scottish independence during the referendum last year. Making the protection of Scotland’s social-welfare programs a hallmark of its campaign, the party won 56 of the 59 available seats in Scotland in an unprecedented electoral performance.
However, the SNP has made a point of distancing the election results from the independence question. “I have said throughout the campaign that this was not about independence, I do not take any of the votes in the election for the SNP as votes for independence,” said party leader and First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon.
While the SNP’s showing in the elections may not have given it a “mandate for independence,” it nonetheless gives the campaign for another referendum a “considerable boost,” according to Alex Salmond, a former first minister of Scotland and a newly elected member of the U.K. Parliament. “That mandate can come from other elections in Scotland, but obviously it’s a very substantial boost for the SNP,” Salmond said in an interview with Channel 4 News Friday.
The SNP was the dominant force seeking Scottish independence from the U.K. as it led a robust campaign urging Scots to vote “Yes” during the referendum last September. Ultimately, Scottish voters opted to remain in the U.K., with 55 percent voting against an independent Scotland. The party may be cautious about the independence issue so soon after its initiative’s defeat, but it could have good opportunities to renew the push in the aftermath of the elections this week.
Efforts to conduct another referendum will likely come in the face of a major national issue on which the SNP can make a serious case for Scottish independence from the U.K., according to the Center on Constitutional Change’s McAngus. “There needs to be a crisis of legitimacy at the heart of the British government that says to the Scottish people that a referendum could be justified.”
Such a crisis could take form in response to the likely prospect of a U.K. referendum on its European Union membership, something Cameron has promised to deliver. An EU referendum conducted by the government would lay the groundwork for a renewed campaign for a Scottish referendum by the SNP, which strongly opposes a break with Europe. Party leader Sturgeon has previously said that leaving the EU would be “disastrous” for the Scottish economy. Polls have consistently shown that remaining in the EU is far more popular in Scotland than in the rest of the U.K., with 57 percent of Scots saying they would vote to stay in the EU, compared with just 37 percent of people across the U.K., according to a YouGov poll.
The idea the government in Westminster could remove Scotland from the EU against its will could be just the kind of “massive rupture” between Scotland and the rest of the U.K. that would be necessary to build support for a new referendum campaign, McAngus said. “It’s basically a legitimacy issue at the end of the day. Does the U.K. government have the right to carry out an action in Scotland that goes against the way Scotland has voted?”