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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A prediction: after 2021, Nicola Sturgeon won’t fight another devolved election as SNP leader. The first minister’s future hinges on the outcome of next May’s crucial Holyrood vote and the UK government’s response to nationalist demands for a second independence referendum. 

If the SNP manages to secure and then win that referendum, Scots will go on to elect a sovereign, independent parliament, most likely with Sturgeon at its helm. If the nationalists lose, however, Sturgeon will have little choice but to resign, much as Alex Salmond and David Cameron did following their respective referendum defeats in 2014 and 2016.

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Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom in July 2019. Since then, he has launched four separate initiatives aimed at ‘saving’ the Union from the threat of Scottish nationalism. The most recent of these, announced on Nov. 18., is intended to “boost the social and cultural case” for Britain following a “series of missteps” by the Conservative leader, according to the Financial Times

On Nov 17., Johnson reportedly told a group of Tory MPs that the transfer of partial legislative powers to Scotland from London in 1999 had been a “disaster north of the border.” His remark was clearly not meant for a Scottish audience: two decades after its creation, the Scottish Parliament remains hugely popular with Scottish voters. Opposition to devolution, on the other hand, is a fringe pursuit.

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Ten months after Boris Johnson led his Conservative Party to an epic election victory in the United Kingdom, surveys are showing an increase in support for Scottish independence — literally, the break-up of the British state.

Enthusiasm for ending Scotland’s 313-year-old union with England has spiked in the past, notably in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, when it looked, briefly, like the Scots were going to vote in favor of leaving the UK. (The final result was 55 percent to 45 percent against.)

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Nationalists have long believed in the inevitability of Scottish independence; now unionists are beginning to believe in it, too. “It’s over,” one former Better Together figurehead told The Spectator, anonymously, in July. “The horse has bolted.”

The recent string of opinion polls showing, for the first time, sustained majority support for separation has spooked the British political class. Boris Johnson’s panicked sojourns north of the border, and the hastily-arranged decapitation of Jackson Carlaw as Scots Tory leader, suggest unionism is a cause in search of a strategy – a point underlined by the absurd idea, floated last week by the FT’s Sebastian Payne, that Britain’s future rests exclusively on the shoulders of Richard Leonard.

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Glasgow, Scotland—In the British general election on Dec. 12, 2019, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a resounding mandate from its constituents, taking 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the U.K. House of Commons and 45 percent of all ballots cast by Scottish voters. A week later, on Dec. 19, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon sent a letter to Britain’s newly reelected Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson requesting the power to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence. (The first referendum, which took place in September 2014, resulted in a 10-point victory for the Anglo-Scottish union.)

On Jan. 14, the prime minister delivered his answer. “I cannot agree to any request … that would lead to further independence referendums,” he wrote in a formal memorandum to Sturgeon. “The people of Scotland voted decisively on that promise to keep our United Kingdom together … The U.K. government will continue to uphold the democratic decision [made in 2014].”

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The late Alasdair Gray is widely believed to be the author of the unofficial slogan of Scottish nationalism: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’ In fact, the line was paraphrased from the Canadian poet Dennis Lee, who wrote in his 1972 poem Civil Elegies: ‘And best of all is finding a place to be / in the early days of a better civilization.’ To be fair, Gray never tried to disguise where the expression had come from. ‘I have always attributed it to [Lee],’ he once said. ‘But people started quoting it as if I had invented it’.

In The Literary Politics Of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation, Scott Hames — a lecturer in English Studies at Stirling University — examines how Scottish cultural luminaries like Gray have shaped our national political discourse, both consciously and unconsciously, over the past half century.

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STIRLING, Scotland—The constituency of Stirling sprawls across central Scotland, stretching from the Trossachs National Park in the west to the village of Fallin, at the tip of the Firth of Forth, in the east. An old adage dating back to the 14th century and the Anglo-Scottish Wars, states: “He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland.”

In 2019, that may still be the case.

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