On post-election high, Scotland aims to wrest more power from London

Talk of another independence referendum was given new life after the SNP's Scottish sweep last week. David Cameron met with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today about greater Scottish control of taxation and spending.

Russell Cheyne/Reuters
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (r.), greets British Prime Minister David Cameron, as he arrives for their meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, today.

It didn't take long before one of the big winners of the British general election began to butt heads with the other.

The May 7 general election had scarcely ended when British Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon began publicly sparring over the question of whether Scotland could hold a second referendum on leaving the United Kingdom.

Today, not even a week into his new government, Mr. Cameron met Ms. Sturgeon in Edinburgh to discuss the divide of powers between Westminster in London and Holyrood in Scotland – and fend off talk of another independence vote.

While the SNP may have lost last September's referendum, the party's sweeping electoral success earlier this month has given new life to its push for independence. Despite a host of obstacles – including whether a new referendum is even legal without Westminster's acquiescence – analysts say such a move is still very much a possibility, and perhaps even inevitable.

Two sweeping victories

Both Cameron and Ms. Sturgeon are returning to the independence debate from positions of strength. The Conservatives' surprise victory – earned in part by stirring English fears of SNP separatism – allowed them to form the first Tory majority government in 18 years.

At the same time, the SNP took all but three of Scotland's 59 Westminster seats by riding frustration north of the border over the limited new powers offered to Scotland, a marked increase in political engagement, and a growing belief that the nationalists are best placed to "speak for Scotland" at Westminster.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, remain deeply unpopular in Scotland, where they won just a single seat. Tensions between the Tory government in Westminster and Scotland's predominantly left-wing voters has been a hallmark of British politics in recent decades, and was one of the main arguments marshaled by supporters of independence last year.

Given that, Cameron and Sturgeon were bound to collide.

"We had a referendum. Scotland voted emphatically to stay in the United Kingdom," Cameron said Sunday, after taking in part of commemorations for the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day in London. The prime minister said that further powers would be granted to Scotland in accordance with a plan agreed upon late last year, but "there isn't going to be another referendum."

As her cadre of new MPs arrived in Westminster, however, Sturgeon warned that Cameron does not have the authority to stop a second referendum. The Scottish first minister said she was "not planning" another such ballot but refused to rule it out, saying that it was up to Scots to decide.


But the issue of legality must be addressed first. "Holyrood's power to hold a referendum on independence without Westminster's consent remains an open question. The Supreme Court has never decided the issue authoritatively.  There are powerful legal arguments on both sides," says Andrew Tickell, a law lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University. The matter could be tested if the SNP commit to another vote in their manifesto for next year's Scottish parliament elections.

David Torrance, author of a new of book on Scottish politics, believes that independence is "just a matter of time, really," especially as Conservative commitments to repeal the Human Rights Act, continue austerity, and hold a referendum on the European Union are likely to deepen divides.

But although "the destination is set" for independence, a second referendum could still be a long way off, he says.

"Scotland could easily keep re-electing a big block of SNP MPs without anything very much happening over the next couple of decades. The SNP will only push for another referendum when they're confident of success, and I can't see them losing second time round," he says. Polls suggest that a majority of Scots still favor union, despite the SNP receiving more than half the Scottish vote on May 7.

Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University, says Scotland's place in the union could hinge on whether the new Conservative government is willing to offer an enhanced constitutional settlement.

"Scottish independence is not inevitable. It will depend how the Conservative government handles Scottish matters. It is possible that Cameron could attempt to stem the threat of independence but at least at the moment, he shows no signs of wanting to move further than the current proposals," he says.

... or devolution?

Scotland has had its own parliament since 1997, with oversight of such issues as health, education, and social affairs. While most Scots are content to leave defense and foreign affairs in the hands of Westminster, poll after poll shows demand for more control of economic policy.
The Smith Commission, set up in the wake of September independence referendum to advise on further devolution for Scotland, was widely criticized for not going far enough. Among the list of SNP demands during the general election was "full fiscal autonomy," which would see the Scottish parliament effectively raising the money it spends rather than relying on a block grant from Westminster. But while some Tory voices support such a move, experts have warned that the full devolution of tax and spend powers could cost Scots billions, potentially increasing disquiet north of the border and, paradoxically, swelling support for independence.

Jamie Maxwell, a Scottish political commentator at the New Statesman, says that the time for a federal solution – creating devolved parliaments in all four nations of the UK – may already have passed.

"The moment for the unionist parties to make a federal offer to Scotland – or initiate a radical program of political decentralization across the UK – was last year, in the run-up to the independence referendum. They chose not to, opting instead for a package of reforms ... that are now widely regarded as redundant and that a large section of the Scottish population seem to view as inadequate," says Mr. Maxwell.

The challenge for the SNP now is to operate as an effective force in Westminster – but without becoming too enamored of the bright lights of Parliament.

"Scottish Labour become complacent because its dominance went unchallenged for years. The danger for the SNP is that the party simply replaces Labour as an embedded, self-serving political establishment in Scotland," says Maxwell.

Few expect Nicola Sturgeon to rest on her laurels. Already the SNP leader's thoughts have turned to next year's elections to the Scottish Parliament. If, as polls suggest, the SNP repeat their UK victory in Edinburgh, the question could soon become not if Scotland holds another referendum, but when.

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