A majority victory would hand Scottish nationalists the impetus to push harder for a second independence referendum.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has dismissed calls for a second referendum on Scottish independence, saying most people in the United Kingdom feel now is “not the time” for such a vote as the country navigates its way out of the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson’s comments escalated a war of words with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and came on the eve of elections for Scotland’s devolved parliament.
Sturgeon’s pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) is expected to win the most seats in the 129-member Holyrood legislature, and is pressing for an outright majority to boost its drive for a rerun of Scotland’s 2014 independence vote.
Johnson’s government has argued that Scotland would require its permission to hold a legally binding second referendum; the prime minister has repeatedly ruled out providing any such consent.
Reiterating his opposition on Wednesday, Johnson said another vote on Scotland breaking away from the rest of the UK would be “reckless”.
“I think that most people in Scotland, most people around the whole of the UK, feel that … as we’re coming forwards out of a pandemic together, this is not the time to have a reckless, and I think irresponsible, second referendum,” he told broadcasters during a trip to the English midlands.
Thursday’s vote in Scotland will be alongside other local and regional ballots across the UK.
Sturgeon has said that if the SNP wins a majority in the Scottish Parliament, when the COVID-19 pandemic is over she will pass legislation to hold a new referendum by the end of 2023.
On Wednesday, she challenged Johnson to oppose her plan in court, saying that only the UK’s legal system could prevent a second independence vote.
“I’m saying if Boris Johnson wants to stop it, he would have to take legal action,” Sturgeon told UK broadcaster Sky News on Wednesday.
“If Boris Johnson didn’t do that, by definition it would be a legal referendum. If he did do that, the courts would decide.”
In 2011, the SNP won an outright majority in the Holyrood – the only time it has done so – and then-British Prime Minister David Cameron bowed to pressure and agreed to the 2014 referendum.
The ballot saw most Scots – 55 percent – vote to remain in the more than 300-year-old union.
But recent opinion polls have suggested a majority may now favour independence, a shift driven by the UK’s departure from the European Union and concerns over Johnson’s government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.