Scottish independence party seeks majority in 'knife-edge' count

AFP , Saturday 8 May 2021

The UK voted in a series of local and regional polls on "Super Thursday" in its first major vote since Brexit and the pandemic

Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon reacts after being declared the winner of the Glasgow Southside seat at Glasgow counting centre in the Emirates Arena in Glasgow on May 7, 2021, during counting for the Scottish parliament elections. AFP

The Scottish National Party hoped a second day of vote-counting Saturday would bring it a slim majority in the devolved parliament while Prime Minister Boris Johnson decried its plan for an independence referendum.

The UK voted in a series of local and regional polls on "Super Thursday" in its first major vote since Brexit and the pandemic.

Johnson's Conservative Party performed strongly and claimed a traditional Labour seat in a parliamentary by-election.

But the focus remained on Scotland, where a vote for the devolved parliament in Edinburgh tested public support for the SNP's plan to hold a fresh referendum on independence that could reshape the UK.

The SNP on Friday won 39 of the 48 seats declared but lost two key targets. It needs 65 seats to claim a majority at Holyrood for the first time since 2011.

'Hopes fading'

"Hopes of SNP majority fading", the Herald daily headlined its election story, while The Scotsman wrote: "SNP hopes on a knife-edge amid gains for Nicola Sturgeon's party."

Deputy First Minister John Sweeney told BBC Radio 4 on Saturday morning that the SNP "is going to be the largest party in the Scottish Parliament" but said an overall majority "was always a very, very challenging mountain for us to climb".

He predicted that the Scottish parliament would however have a majority "of people who are committed to the holding of an independence referendum." The other pro-independence party with Holyrood seats is the Scottish Greens.

Johnson in an interview with The Daily Telegraph indicated that he would not agree to a referendum even if the SNP wins a majority.

"I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless," Johnson told the right-wing broadsheet.

Asked what he would do if Sturgeon pushed for a referendum without Westminster's consent, he said "there's no case now for such a thing... I don't think it's what the times call for at all."

Sturgeon has stressed that she will only hold a legal referendum and that it will be held when the virus crisis is over and not before the end of 2023.

"I pledge today to get back to work immediately, to lead this country in recovery from Covid, and then, when the time is right, to offer this country the choice of a better future," she said Friday.

The SNP also pledges that independent Scotland would seek to rejoin the European Union after most Scots voted against Brexit.

Johnson told The Telegraph he had the impression that the SNP had "moved away from the idea of a referendum, and I think very wisely."

The last referendum in 2014 saw 55 percent vote "no". Recent polls suggest "no" would win again in an immediate referendum, as many fear ongoing upheaval post-Brexit.

'Very encouraging'

On Friday Johnson's Tories won a landslide in the northeast parliamentary seat of Hartlepool, in a bitter blow for Labour and its leader Keir Starmer.

The Tory mayor for Tees Valley, also in northeast England, won re-election, also by a landslide, increasing his share of the vote compared to 2017.

Johnson described the results as "very encouraging" for his government.

The results continue the trend from the last general election in December 2019, when Brexit was the dominant issue and Conservatives grabbed a string of seats across Labour's so-called "Red Wall" heartlands in northern England.

This time, Johnson may have benefited from Britain's successful vaccine rollout -- despite the country also suffering one of the world's worst Covid-19 death tolls.

Dogged by scandals in recent weeks, Johnson campaigned on his record of finally having "got Brexit done".

He also touted government economic support during the pandemic and the vaccine drive.

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