On May 6, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) came within 2,000 votes of winning an outright majority at Holyrood, the country’s devolved national parliament in Edinburgh. Holyrood’s proportional voting system was designed to discourage majority results. Sturgeon has won every election she has fought as SNP leader – six in seven years. By the time the next Scottish election takes place in 2026, the SNP will have held power at Holyrood for 19 years, more than two-thirds of the total lifespan of the parliament itself. Under Sturgeon’s leadership, Scottish nationalism has become virtually hegemonic. The SNP has no serious electoral rivals; the party draws support from a sizeable cross-section of demographic groups.

Sturgeon is the lynchpin of this success. She has been a member of the Holyrood chamber since it was created, or ‘reconvened’, by the House of Commons, in 1999. She became (de facto) leader of the opposition at the age of 34, deputy first minister and health secretary at 36, and first minister at 44. Journalists have spent the last few months poring over the breakdown of Sturgeon’s relationship with her bitterly estranged former boss and mentor, Alex Salmond. Increasingly, however, Salmond – who ran the Scottish government with Sturgeon as his deputy between 2007 and 2014 – looks like a supporting act in the history of modern Scottish nationalism. His newly established party, Alba, took less than 2 per cent of the vote on May 6.

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Last week’s local and national election results in the United Kingdom revealed a country radically, and perhaps irreparably, divided.

Labour retained power in Wales; Boris Johnson’s Conservatives scored huge victories throughout England; and in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won a remarkable fourth term in office.

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After 14 years in power – and one earth-shatteringly unpleasant internal party split – the SNP has secured a fourth consecutive election victory at Holyrood. The votes are still being tallied; an outright majority may have just slipped beyond the grasp of the nationalists. 

And yet, next week, Nicola Sturgeon will still be first minister – and the question of independence will still lie at the heart of Scottish political debate. If, as looks likely, the SNP doesn’t reach that all-important 65-seat threshold, Green MSPs will make up the numbers. Both parties favour another referendum on self-government once the worst of the COVID pandemic has subsided, with 2023 mooted as one potential staging point for a fresh vote. 

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For Scots of my generation — millennial and younger — the belief that Scotland would be better off running its own affairs, free from the strictures of Westminster, is almost axiomatic. From the Iraq war to Brexit, the financial crash to austerity, Britain feels trapped in a spiral of crisis and decline. According to a September analysis of recent polls, more than 70 percent of Scots under the age of 35 think Scotland should abandon the United Kingdom. And the abrasive right-wing premiership of Boris Johnson, increasingly mired in accusations of cronyism and sleaze, has only strengthened that view.

At the other end of the spectrum, Scotland’s older, asset-owning classes remain staunchly opposed to a political breakup and the economic instability it might entail. An election this week should show which side has the wind at its back.

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GLASGOW, Scotland—Now 14 years in power in Edinburgh’s devolved Parliament, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) is polling ahead of its nearest rivals by at least 25 percentage points as elections approach on May 6. The party’s leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, remains the country’s most popular and trusted politician. Her steady handling of the coronavirus pandemic has garnered praise, bolstering the feeling that Scotland could thrive on its own—cut loose from the legislative ties of the United Kingdom.

Sturgeon’s SNP will win the elections. The only question is, on whose terms? A slight shift in the polls could mean the difference between an SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament or another five years of rancorous minority coalition rule. If her party wins the majority, Sturgeon has pledged to call another independence referendum by the end of 2023. She remains locked in a high-stakes standoff with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has said he will block Scotland from voting again on the question of leaving the United Kingdom.

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On 26 February, Alex Salmond appeared before a Holyrood committee inquiry investigating how and why complaints of sexual misconduct made against him in 2018 had been mishandled by Scotland’s devolved government in Edinburgh – the devolved government that he used to run. The allegations were false, the former Scottish National Party (SNP) leader said. (Salmond was acquitted of 13 sexual assault charges in an Edinburgh courtroom last Spring.) There had been a ‘malicious plot’ in the higher reaches of Scottish civil society to press ahead with them anyway. The plot had spiralled out of control. Information had been suppressed. Key pieces of evidence were ignored. And those involved had tried to cover their tracks. ‘Scotland hasn’t failed,’ Salmond declared in his opening statement; its leadership, from the Crown Office to the cabinet, has. 

Five days later, on 3 March, Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor as Scottish first minister and SNP leader, sat in front of the same committee inquiry. There was no plot, she said. Several women had come forward with serious allegations regarding Salmond’s behaviour. The Scottish government had botched its response to those allegations. But procedure, not conspiracy, was to blame for the flawed investigative process. ‘I had no motive, intention, or desire to “get” Alex Salmond’, Sturgeon stated. Indeed, until recently, Salmond – sixteen years Sturgeon’s senior – had been one of her closest friends and political confidants. The first minister’s marathon eight-hour evidence session marked the apex of a drama that has gripped Scottish politics for months. Between them, Salmond and Sturgeon have run Holyrood for almost a decade-and-a-half. In September 2014, at the head of the campaign for Scottish independence, they came close to dissolving the United Kingdom itself. 

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If Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party fails to secure outright victory at in May’s parliamentary election, the hopes of those pushing for a second referendum on independence from the U.K. could rest on the success of another party altogether: the Scottish Greens. 

With just five out of the devolved Edinburgh parliament’s 129 seats, the Greens should be a marginal force in Scottish politics. Instead, they are the SNP’s main partner in the campaign for a separate Scottish state and, their activists argue, the country’s most effective vehicle for radical legislative reform.

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In case it wasn’t already clear: Alex Salmond wants to end Nicola Sturgeon’s political career. 

This week, as part of a Holyrood committee inquiry into the alleged mishandling of sexual assault allegations against Scotland’s former first minister, Salmond accused people close to Sturgeon – his one-time friend and colleague, and Scotland’s current first minister – of maliciously conspiring to “remove” him from public life. 

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