What would an SNP majority in Holyrood mean?

Georgia L. Gilholy

May 6, 2021

According to the New Statesman’s tracker of Scottish public opinion, since the middle of 2020, a consistent majority of Scots have backed independence from the United Kingdom. Now, while support for Scottish independence may have dwindled slightly over the past month, it looks likely that the SNP will gain seats in the elections today, which could leave them with a solid working majority in Holyrood.

But what could this mean for the future of Scotland? Winning a secure majority will be the most clear-cut path to a renewed battle for independence and enough for the SNP to claim a mandate from Westminster for another independence referendum. However, it is unlikely that this would be plain sailing; while David Cameron agreed to the 2014 referendum (the last and only time the SNP gained a majority), Boris Johnson has firmly ruled out such a move.

At the same time, given Johnson’s tendency to equivocate, and considering the multiplicity of pressures facing his own premiership, it is always plausible that he may end up budging on this stance post-election.

There has also been plenty of speculation over whether an SNP-led government would attempt to face down Tory-run Westminster by launching an illegal referendum à la Catalonia, which would no doubt be followed by legal action to challenge Westminster’s final say.

In a final debate on Tuesday however, Sturgeon denied she would consider an unauthorised ‘wildcat’ referendum if the Prime Minister refused to give formal consent. In many ways, it would make far more sense for Sturgeon to play the long game, and let Westminster do the yielding. 

According to Professor Aileen McHarg, an expert on constitutional law at Durham University, while “there are respectable arguments for saying that a referendum bill would be within devolved competence”, it is by no means a “foregone conclusion that the Scottish government would win such a case.

This being said, as University of Aberdeen Professor Michael Keating has highlighted, the union is of course based on the principle that any country could leave if it wants; thus Scotland must ultimately be free to decide its own destiny. 

While independence itself would in no way be inevitable in the light of an SNP majority, it is difficult to imagine how successive SNP wins would fail to pressure for a referendum before Johnson’s favoured 30-year delay. 

Independence aside, it is the response to Covid-19 that currently dominates everyday life across the UK and has formed a significant pillar of the SNP’s platform.

With vaccine uptake high nationwide, we will likely see a simultaneous summertime relaxation in Scotland’s restrictions, whether or not Sturgeon remains top dog in Holyrood. If they gain a majority, the SNP have specifically promised to move Scotland to “level two” which will include allowing four people from two households to meet indoors for the first time since last year, along with increasing the number of people who can meet outdoors.

However, given the SNP’s have become increasingly authoritarian over the course of the pandemic, it is unlikely that a reversal in restrictions would remain in place if cases began to rise once again. Indeed, Sturgeon herself admitted in February that Scotland could even be back in lockdown this winter, and that “face covering, stringent hygiene, [and] some kind of physical distancing,” would likely be “necessary” for an undefined “longer period.

The only thing that is clear as of now is that an SNP sweep in the election would surely place the continuation of the Union in the balance, no matter which avenue they decide to pursue. 


Written by Georgia L. Gilholy

Georgia L. Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.

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