Even as Johnson urged unity, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP and Scotland’s first minister, reiterated her party’s demand for another independence referendum. She cast the election, in which her party won 80 percent of Scotland’s seats, as a “watershed moment” and said that listening to Scotland’s independence aspirations was a matter of democratic fairness.
“You cannot hold Scotland in the union against its will. … If the United Kingdom is to continue it can only be by consent,” Sturgeon told the BBC on Monday. “And if Boris Johnson is confident in the case for the union then he should be confident enough to make that case and allow people to decide.”
Five years ago, Scotland won that right from Westminster and held, with minimal fuss, a referendum. The yes camp lost narrowly then. But Brexit, which is bitterly opposed by most Scottish voters, has galvanized Scottish nationalists. And their opponents are deflated. In 2014, Britain’s three major parties — the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats — worked together to make the case for no in Scotland. But after a bruising, polarizing half-decade, it’s hard to imagine them mustering a similar level of collaboration if a second referendum occurs.
The kindling is in place for an explosive constitutional standoff. That has drawn parallels to the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia, where a secessionist movement unilaterally staged a referendum in 2017 that Madrid deemed illegal. Prominent Catalan secessionist leaders fled to exile; others were arrested and tried on charges of sedition and misuse of state funds. In October, riots and protests flared once more in Barcelona and other Catalan cities after the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to prison sentences ranging from nine to 13 years.
The Catalan secessionists have for years argued that they want from Madrid what Scotland secured from Westminster in 2014: the legal right to hold a referendum. Spanish authorities shrug at British precedent and view Catalan moves toward secession as unconstitutional. Polls show that support for independence in both Scotland and Catalonia hovers slightly below 50 percent, though considerably more people are open to the idea of referendums.
The fraught political situation in Madrid may give the Catalan secessionists new energy: To form a stable government, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is holding talks this week with a left-wing Catalan secessionist party, which hopes to bring up Catalan self-determination and amnesty for the imprisoned leaders as part of the discussion.
“The Westminster system isn’t working for Scotland and hasn’t done so for a very long time,” Sturgeon said in an interview before the election with Washington Post stringer Amanda Ferguson. “We have right now a Westminster system that leads to Tory governments we in Scotland don’t vote for — imposing policies, like Brexit and austerity, that do us harm.”
Both independence movements share an explicit fealty to the ideals and aspirations of the European Union. Scottish and Catalan secessionists argue that their nationalism is anchored not in nostalgia for a lost past, but a vision of a post-national future, where their multicultural societies can be tethered to the cosmopolitan European project. The European Union has studiously resisted offering much support for their ambitions.
Sturgeon insists that Brexit, brought into effect by a 2016 referendum, makes her case all the more urgent. “There has been a huge change in circumstances since the last independence referendum,” she told The Post. “Then, people were categorically told that the only way to protect Scotland’s place in Europe was to reject independence. Scotland now faces being dragged out of the E.U. and the world’s biggest single market — which is around eight times the size of the U.K. market — against its will.”
Alfred Bosch, the de facto foreign minister of Catalonia’s regional government, echoed this commitment to Brussels in an interview during a visit to Washington last month. “Europe emerges from the Second World War saying enough is enough. Enough intolerance, war, racism, fascism. … We believe in that,” he told Today’s WorldView. “We believe in Europe. We are not Brexiters, we are Remainers.”