Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon on Saturday claimed a second referendum on independence was a “matter of fundamental democratic principle” after parties backing such a vote won an increased majority of seats in the devolved parliament at Holyrood.
Sturgeon’s own Scottish National party fell one seat short of a majority in its own right in the proportionally representative parliament, but Thursday’s election left the SNP and the pro-independence Scottish Greens together controlling 72 of the chamber’s 129 seats.
The fourth consecutive Scottish parliamentary election victory for the SNP sets up a constitutional showdown with the Conservative UK government that could decide the future of the 314-year-old union between Scotland and England.
Pro-union politicians are likely to cite the SNP’s failure to win a majority on its own as grounds for refusing a rerun of the 2014 referendum, in which Scots backed staying remaining part of the UK by 55-45 per cent.
But in a victory speech as the SNP’s victory was confirmed on Saturday, Sturgeon said both her party and the Greens had clearly committed to a second vote on independence in their election manifestos.
“This is now a matter of fundamental democratic principle,” she said, adding that refusal of a referendum would “demonstrate conclusively that the UK is not a partnership of equals and that, astonishingly, Westminster no longer sees the UK as a voluntary union”.
“That in itself would be a most powerful argument for Scotland becoming an independent country,” the first minister said.
The UK government declined to comment on Sturgeon’s referendum demand. Prime minister Boris Johnson in January suggested Westminster should not approve such a vote until the 2050s at least.
In an interview with The Telegraph newspaper published on Saturday the prime minister said an independence referendum “in the current context” would be “irresponsible and reckless”.
Sturgeon said her initial focus as re-elected first minister would be on steering Scotland through the pandemic, with a referendum to follow when it was past.
Final election results announced on Saturday underscored the SNP’s political dominance in Scotland. The party took an unprecedented 62 of the parliament’s 73 first-past-the-post constituency seats, with a 48 per cent share of the vote that was greater than the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour combined.
The remaining 53 seats at Holyrood are decided by proportionally representative regional list voting, a system that makes it very difficult for a single party to win a majority outright. The SNP managed the feat in 2011 but has operated as a minority government for the past five years.
The SNP’s final tally of 64 seats was one more than it won in 2016, while the Scottish Green party increased its tally by two seats to eight.
“Voters have delivered a pro-independence majority . . . and it is now incumbent on Boris Johnson to recognise that democratic mandate,” said Green co-leader Lorna Slater.
Despite wins in some key target seats, SNP hopes of a majority were dashed in large part by tactical voting by pro-union voters. Conservative party supporters helped Labour hold the eastern Scottish marginal of Dumbarton. In Aberdeenshire West, Liberal Democrat supporters helped the Tories fend off an SNP challenge.
After a campaign heavily focused on opposition to a second independence referendum, the Scottish Conservatives retained their status as the second largest party at Holyrood, with 31 seats, a total unchanged from 2016.
Douglas Ross, Scottish Conservative leader, said his party had succeeded in preventing an SNP majority.
“Now the SNP must listen to the clear message delivered by the people of Scotland that they want Scotland’s parties to come together now in the national interest and completely focus on our recovery,” Ross said.
Scottish Labour, which until 2007 dominated Scottish politics, remained stuck in third place with 22 seats, down two compared with 2016, despite what was generally considered a good campaign for its new leader, Anas Sarwar.
Turnout across Scotland on Thursday was higher than in 2016, despite poor weather and snow across parts of the country and what many observers have judged a relatively lacklustre campaign.
The vote also broke new political ground with the election of the parliament’s first permanent wheelchair user, Labour’s Pam Duncan Glancy; its first Sikh, Pam Gosal of the Conservatives, and its first female Muslim, the SNP’s Kaukab Stewart.
“It has taken too long, but to all the women and girls of colour out there, the Scottish parliament belongs to you too,” Stewart said.
The new pro-independence Alba party launched by former SNP first minister Alex Salmond failed to win a single seat.
Salmond, told sympathetic bloggers on a video call that he was “on a bad run” after losing his Westminster seat in 2017. But the former SNP leader insisted Alba would continue as a home for “disaffected” independence supporters frustrated at what he said was Sturgeon’s failure to press the case for leaving the UK.
Graphics by Cale Tilford, Max Harlow, Joanna S Kao and Steven Bernard
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