Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to press ahead with plans for a second independence referendum after the Scottish National party was poised to win its fourth consecutive Holyrood election, triggering a constitutional battle with Boris Johnson.
With counting continuing into Saturday evening, the Scottish National party was expected to fall two seats short of an overall majority despite winning a record number of Holyrood constituency seats, after a surge in anti-independence tactical voting.
Sturgeon’s lingering hopes of winning a majority were quashed after the Scottish Conservatives won the key SNP target seat of Aberdeenshire West with a hefty majority – a result the Tories will argue vindicates their decision to make independence one of the biggest issues in their campaign.
Buoyed by a record turnout in a Holyrood election of 64%, the first minister said Scottish voters had given her an “emphatic” mandate to stage a legally-recognised referendum in the next parliament – a challenge the prime minister dismissed before the election result was declared.
Johnson, speaking after the first tranche of results on Friday suggested the SNP would fail to achieve a majority, told the Telegraph: “I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless.”
Citing the Treasury-funded furlough scheme and the British army’s role in delivering Covid vaccinations, he said: “I think there’s been an eloquent testimonial during the pandemic to the power of the union.”
Sturgeon signalled the Scottish government was ready for a constitutional battle with Johnson, using an expected pro-independence majority of SNP and Scottish Green MSPs to vote through Holyrood legislation enabling a referendum.
A BBC Scotland seat projection forecast the Greens would win a record nine seats from the regional top-up lists, which proportionally allocate 56 of Holyrood’s 129 seats, giving independence parties a comfortable overall majority.
That would force the UK government into the politically hazardous territory of asking the UK supreme court to quash that legislation, risking an increase in popular support for independence in Scotland and a constitutional battle over Holyrood’s limited legal powers.
Sturgeon told Channel 4 News her government would legislate for the vote “and if Boris Johnson wants to stop that, he would have to go to court”.
“If this was in almost any other democracy in the world, it would be an absurd discussion,” she added. “If people in Scotland vote for a pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament, no politician has got the right to stand in the way of that.”
With the final list votes due to be counted later on Saturday, a BBC Scotland projection showed a result very close to the 2016 Holyrood election, when the SNP also won 63 seats. It predicted the Tories would win 31 seats, Labour 22, down two, the Greens nine, up by three, and the Lib Dems down one on four.
Sturgeon’s ability to control the timing and strategy on a referendum was secured after Alex Salmond’s attempt to win seats for his new hardline pro-independence Alba party failed; he was humiliated after Alba secured about 2% of the vote, with SNP voters failing to swing behind his demands for an immediate referendum campaign.