Opinion polls for most of the past three years have shown Scotland to be evenly divided between supporters of union and independence. The Scottish parliament election result confirms this again. While the Scottish National party narrowly failed to gain an overall majority, independence supporters (the SNP and the Greens) have 72 of the 129 seats. Scottish electors cast two votes. The first is for a constituency MSP, elected by first-past-the-post as in Westminster elections. The second is for a regional party list, with seats distributed proportionally to ensure that the overall balance in the parliament is close to the regional list vote. Pro-independence parties won 49% of the constituency vote and 50.1% of the vote in the regional lists.
The polarisation of Scottish politics around the constitutional issue is exacerbated by Brexit. While unionists and nationalists backed remain by substantial majorities in 2016, since then there has been a move of remainers towards independence, while a smaller number of leavers have moved in the opposite direction. This polarisation has benefited the SNP and the Conservatives, while Labour has been squeezed. The middle ground, on which the largest section of Scottish opinion was previously camped – more devolution but short of independence – has shrunk.
There is strong evidence of tactical voting in the constituencies, as unionists plump for whichever candidate appears more likely to the beat the nationalists. So many unionists in Edinburgh Southern and Dumbarton go for Labour. In Edinburgh Western and North East Fife they go for the Liberal Democrats. In southern Scotland and Aberdeenshire they are attracted to the Conservatives. Scots have a long history of tactical voting, which from the 1970s to the 1990s was used mainly against the Conservatives. This time it is another indication of the polarisation of Scottish politics around the constitutional question.
The SNP and Greens take the result as a clear mandate for a second independence referendum. Unionists cannot, as in other countries, claim that this is impossible because the state is indivisible. Successive prime ministers have conceded that Scotland does have the right to self-determination and there was an independence referendum in 2014. Some have suggested that only an SNP majority should count or that the constituency popular vote is what matters but that risks conceding the principle that a Scottish election can provide such a mandate. Some unionists have argued that the election was not about independence but it was the Scottish Conservatives who made it the centrepiece of their campaign. More often, unionists insist that this is not the time for a referendum because it is too soon after the last one or because of the Covid crisis. That might work in the short term, but in fact the SNP is not proposing an immediate referendum but one after the crisis is over.
For the nationalists, the difficulty is that there is no clear majority for independence and no guarantee that they would win a referendum. They have a grievance, that Scotland was taken out of the European Union when 62% of Scots voted remain. Yet Brexit has made independence more difficult because, with Scotland in the EU and the rest of the UK out, there would be a hard border between the two. This undercuts the prospectus of 2014, which assumed that both countries would be within the European single market and customs union.
The Scottish government has indicated that it will bring in a referendum bill and challenge the UK government to contest it in the supreme court. If it does, it is likely that the court will strike it down on the grounds that the Scotland Act clearly states that the union between Scotland and England is a matter reserved to Westminster. The UK government will refuse to grant a “section 30 order”, as it did for 2014, allowing the Scottish government to hold a referendum. The SNP leadership has made it clear that it will not defy the law or hold a Catalan-style unilateral referendum. It is aware, unlike the Catalans, that the only route to international recognition is through an agreement with the UK. Even if the Scottish government were to find a way to stage a purely advisory referendum (in effect, a giant opinion poll), Westminster would not react like the Spanish authorities and send in the police to disrupt it. More likely, it would simply ignore it.
The UK government is very worried about Scotland and has ambitious plans to spend more money directly, bypassing Holyrood and dealing with local authorities and private bodies. The funding will come with a prominent union flag attached. Yet money is short and anything that looks like extra cash for Scotland risks provoking the new Conservative voters in the post-industrial towns of northern England. English opinion, especially among leave voters, is surprisingly indifferent to the prospect of Scottish secession but resentful of anything that looks like special treatment for the Scots or undue Scottish influence at the centre.
The constitutional stalemate could continue for a long time, certainly up to the next UK general election in 2023 or 2024. Unless there is a shift in the present 50-50 division of opinion, cautious politicians on both sides may be reluctant to push the pace.