Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, on Sunday paved the way for an independence showdown with Boris Johnson as early as next year, saying she “desperately hoped” Covid-19 would have receded by then.
Sturgeon’s Scottish National party fell one seat short of an overall majority in elections to the 129-seat Holyrood parliament, but said her 64-seat haul represented a “landslide” victory.
With the support of the pro-independence Greens, with eight seats, there is a renewed parliamentary majority for a second referendum on Scotland separating from the rest of the UK.
Sturgeon, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme, repeated her pledge to hold a rerun of the 2014 independence referendum in the first half of her parliamentary term, if Covid-19 had been brought under control.
Asked whether those conditions could be met by the spring of 2022 — in line with some forecasts by scientists — she said: “I desperately hope those predictions are correct.”
She said that would “work for that timescale” of a referendum in the first half of the parliament, and “wouldn’t rule out” legislation early next year. Johnson and his ministers claim it will take much longer for the UK to recover from the pandemic.
Johnson has said talk of “ripping our country apart” would be “irresponsible and reckless” and will resist a second independence vote, which would threaten the integrity of the UK and his own premiership.
But Michael Gove, the cabinet minister charged with preserving the 314-year-old political union, was anxious to avoid giving the impression the UK government would use strong-arm tactics to block a referendum.
Gove told the Marr show that the UK government would not go to the Supreme Court to try to block an independence vote, adding: “We are not going near there.”
Under the 1998 Scotland Act that set up the Holyrood parliament, matters relating to the constitution are “reserved” for the UK parliament. Johnson argues that Westminster would have to approve a second vote.
However, Gove and Johnson are anxious to avoid explicitly saying they will use those legal powers. The SNP’s John Swinney has already accused the prime minister of acting like an “overlord” over Scotland.
Gove, who is working at a new cabinet office base in Glasgow next week, said: “The priority for the moment is not court cases or independence legislation — it’s recovery from the pandemic.”
Johnson’s government argues that the recovery will take time. Gove highlighted the huge backlog of NHS operations and the need for a “catch-up” programme for school children as priorities.
The strategy is to argue that Sturgeon is acting irresponsibly by focusing on constitutional issues, hopefully pushing back the moment when Edinburgh and Westminster finally lock horns on a referendum.
Other parties, rather than the UK government, could take legal action if they felt Sturgeon was overstepping her constitutional powers. The first minister has always said she favoured a legal referendum, not a “wildcat” version of the kind seen in Catalonia.
Sturgeon said it would be “absurd” for Johnson’s government to use the courts to “overturn Scottish democracy”. Such a move would lead to “a very bad place”.
“The UK government knows that if we ever get into a situation where this is being determined in the courts, then actually what the UK government is arguing is that there is no democratic route for Scotland to independence,” she said.
In the meantime, Johnson has invited leaders of the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to join him in a “Team UK” summit to discuss recovery from the pandemic.