second independence vote is ‘Scotland’s will’ after election triumph, Sturgeon says

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at her election count on Friday
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at her election count on Friday   -   Copyright  AP

Scotland's pro-independence parties are set to retain a majority of seats in the country's regional parliament, setting the ground for a debate on the future of the United Kingdom.

Broadcasters in the UK predicted the Scottish National Party will take 64 seats once counting is completed on Saturday, ensuring a fourth term in office for the pro-independence party.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said her party had “won more votes and a higher share of the votes in the constituency ballot than any party” since Scotland's regional government was re-established in 1999.

Speaking on Saturday evening, she said: the “majority of people in Scotland back a progressive, inclusive, outward looking vision for the future of our nation”.

“Yet we are facing many more years of right-wing Brexit-obsessed Tory [Conservative] governments that we don’t vote for, taking us in a direction we haven’t chosen.”

The result leaves the SNP one seats short of an overall majority, but the pro-independence camp is expected to cross the line comfortably because the Scottish Greens are forecast to win as many as nine seats.

Both parties want to call a second referendum on independence once the coronavirus crisis is over.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson says such a vote would be illegal because the powers to call it reside with the UK government in London.

On Saturday, Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper that another referendum would be "irresponsible and reckless'' in the "current context'' as Britain emerges from the coronavirus crisis.

Speaking after winning her seat in Glasgow on Friday, Sturgeon said her immediate priority would be to deal with the pandemic and ``then when the time is right to offer this country the choice of a better future.''

Scotland has been part of the UK since 1707 and the issue of Scottish independence appeared settled when Scottish voters rejected secession by 55%-45% in a 2014 referendum.

But the UK-wide decision in 2016 to leave the European Union ran against the wishes of most Scots. 62% voted in favour of staying within the bloc while most voters in England and Wales wanted to leave.

APPro-independence campaigners in ScotlandAP

That gave the Scottish nationalist cause fresh legs. Scotland's deputy first minister, John Swinney, said that the party would still have the right to call an election if it fell short but enough other pro-independence members were elected, such as from the Scottish Greens. "I'm very confident that will be the case,'' he told the BBC.

So far the elections in England have been largely positive for Johnson's Conservatives, notably its victory in a special election in the post-industrial town of Hartlepool for a parliamentary seat that the main opposition Labour Party had held since 1974.

The win extended the party's grip on parts of England that had been Labour strongholds for decades, if not a century.

Many of these seats that have flipped from red to blue voted heavily in 2016 for Britain's departure from the European Union.

The speedy rollout of coronavirus vaccines also appears to have given the Conservatives a boost.

On what was dubbed Super Thursday, around 50 million voters were eligible to take part in scores of elections, some of which had been postponed a year because of the pandemic that has left the UK with Europe's largest coronavirus death toll.

For the Labour Party and its leader, Keir Starmer, the Hartlepool result was a huge disappointment and has led to another bout of soul-searching in the party.

Hopes had been high that Starmer would help Labour reconnect with its lost voters in the north of England when he took the helm a little more than a year ago after succeeding the more left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, who led the party in 2019 to its worst election performance since 1935.

Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, said he took full responsibility for the party's defeat in Hartlepool, adding that he would soon be setting out a strategy of how it can reconnect with its traditional voters.

He didn't give further details. Starmer and Labour should have some results to cheer over the weekend with Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham expected to win second terms as the mayors of London and Manchester, respectively. The Labour government in Wales has also done better than anticipated and is set to hold onto power.