SNP underline political dominance in Scotland – but how close are we to indyref2?

The results of last Thursday’s Holyrood elections were finalised over the weekend. The SNP fell one seat short of an overall majority but in nearly every other respect lived up to pre-election expectations by comfortably winning their fourth election on the trot. The Conservatives will re-assume their spot as the largest opposition party while Labour and new leader Anas Sarwar will try and take a measure of solace from the fact that, despite a net loss of two seats, things may have been worse.

There was evidence of unionist tactical voting in key marginal seats. This, along with the proportional list results in the regions balancing out the SNP’s dominance in constituencies, had the effect of doing just enough to frustrate the nationalists’ majority hopes. It also interestingly highlights the fact that though pre-election polls indicated voters were prioritising issues like health, education, and the economy over the constitution, when it came to voter behaviour on the day, one’s stance on independence likely acted as a key driver.

And what do we now make of the likelihood of indyref2?

There was little doubt a pro-independence majority would be returned to Holyrood with the Greens polling well and indeed ultimately gaining two seats on their 2016 total. While a majority for the SNP would have perhaps made for a more compelling message around the urgency of securing a second vote, it is still nonetheless clear where most MSPs at the Scottish Parliament stand on this issue.

Both the SNP and Greens believe that continued Westminster refusal to grant a referendum is unsustainable and are essentially aligned on the key question of timing, believing it should happen in the next five years. Nicola Sturgeon has said indyref2 is a matter of “when - not if”. Rhetorically, it seems as though a vote might be around the corner, but we may instead be heading to a constitutional stalemate.

The first element is the SNP’s preferred approach to hold a referendum following the Covid pandemic. It is anyone’s guess as to when this condition might be met. There is also the question to sort out of whether Holyrood can hold a referendum in the absence of an official sanction from the UK Government. The concept has never been tested in the courts and with both sides acknowledging a legal battle to be unlikely, we may not find out the answer any time soon.

The First Minister will be pressing for the precedent set in 2014 to be followed again, but if the Prime Minister refuses UK consent, what will happen then? Is that the matter closed, or will we see Scotland head down the road of a consultative referendum with the attendant risk that this is seen as a road to nowhere? With polling basically showing a 50/50 split for and against independence, both sides will be weighing their options carefully.

In any event, the constitutional stakes have been raised following Thursday’s vote. The UK Government’s thinking on a new strategy to defend the union has progressed in fits and starts but, in their opening salvo, it is believed billions will be offered direct to local areas in Scotland for a variety of initiatives. How this is built upon will be crucial.

What we do know is that, as has been the case since 2014, the constitution looks set to dominate discussions in Scotland yet again.