The UK is hurtling towards a constitutional crisis

Last week’s election showed that the Union’s future will be decided by Scotland – either in the ballot box or the courts.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reacts as she gives a TV interview at a counting centre in Glasgow, Scotland, May 7, 2021 [Russell Cheyne/Reuters]

Last week’s local and national election results in the United Kingdom revealed a country radically, and perhaps irreparably, divided.

Labour retained power in Wales; Boris Johnson’s Conservatives scored huge victories throughout England; and in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won a remarkable fourth term in office.

Including the Scottish Greens, separatists once again command a majority of seats at Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national legislature in Edinburgh. Both parties – the SNP and the Greens – support a new referendum on the break-up of Britain.

According to Sturgeon, Scotland’s incumbent first minister, this will take place at some point over the next five years – it is a matter of “when not if”, she reportedly told Johnson, who opposes such a poll, during a phone call over the weekend.

The SNP leader may well be right. From Thatcherism to Brexit, Iraq to austerity, the roots of British disunity run deep – and there is no obvious solution on the horizon.

Scotland’s grievances are chiefly democratic. The Conservative Party has held power at Westminster for 47 of the past 71 years, yet the Tories have not won a general election in Scotland since 1955. Scots voted overwhelmingly against Britain’s departure from the EU in 2016, yet, on January 1, they lost their European citizenship rights just like everyone else.

The UK is now hurtling towards a constitutional crisis.

Conscious of the ongoing impasse in Spain over Catalonia’s attempts to secede, Sturgeon’s preference is for a poll that lies beyond legal challenge in the UK courts. A so-called “wildcat” referendum, she says, organised without London’s consent, is off the table.

But in Britain, Westminster is sovereign, the constitution formally “reserved” to the House of Commons. That means Johnson will stonewall Sturgeon’s demands for a re-run of the 2014 plebiscite – which saw Scots vote by a ten-point margin to remain part of the UK – and effectively lock Scotland inside the Union, whether it wants to be there or not.

Despite efforts to play down the likelihood of a legal battle, the Anglo-Scottish stand-off could easily end up in front of the British Supreme Court.

Obstructionism could be a risky strategy for Johnson, however. The prime minister – an arch-Brexiteer – is already profoundly unpopular in Scotland.

Since taking charge of the Tory Party in 2019, he has launched four separate initiatives aimed at “saving” the Union from the threat of Scottish separatism. The latest of these stalled earlier in the year when Oliver Lewis, the head of Downing Street’s special anti-independence task force, abruptly quit after briefing against one of his cabinet colleagues. Lewis had been in post for a grand total of 14 days.

Johnson’s next move will be to “love bomb” Scotland with infrastructure spending – while simultaneously trying to push the debate over independence onto the political back-burner. That isn’t going to happen – not while the SNP remains dominant at Holyrood.

Scotland’s unionist parties are in disarray. Faced with Scotland’s staunchly left-leaning, Europhile electorate, the Tories are moored on 23 percent of the vote.

Labour, meanwhile, remains landlocked by the constitutional divide; unable to ditch its traditional British opposition to independence and equally powerless to stop young, working-class Scots shifting in huge numbers away from the Union.

Unionists, then, are in a bind: the more Johnson resists Scottish self-determination, the tighter the SNP’s grip of the Scottish political landscape grows. (After 14 years in power, Sturgeon fell just one seat short of an outright SNP majority on Thursday.)

Writing in The Guardian on May 10, former prime minister Gordon Brown argued that the Scots were not, in fact, all that interested in independence. What they really wanted, he said, was better cooperation with the rest of the UK.

But England’s determination to leave the EU has directly challenged Scotland’s democratic autonomy. And with Labour rudderless on both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border, the chances of a major constitutional overhaul at Westminster feel vanishingly remote.

Last week’s results do not signal the immediate end of the United Kingdom. What they do illustrate, however, is how rapidly Britain’s political map is unravelling. The country’s future will almost certainly be decided by Scotland – possibly in court, but preferably at the ballot box.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.