As if the tortuous exit from the European Union weren’t daunting enough, the United Kingdom now faces a fresh challenge with the announcement by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week that she will seek a fresh independence referendum.

As reported in a section of the British Press, Mrs Sturgeon has said Scotland should have an opportunity to decide in the early part of the next Parliament, which commences next year, whether it wants to remain a part of the United Kingdom. A referendum in 2014 had seen 44.7 per cent of Scots choosing to leave and 55.3 per cent opting to remain.

But that changed with the Brexit referendum in June 2016 and soon thereafter the Scottish Parliament had authorised the government to initiate steps for a second referendum. The pro-independence Scottish National Party, which Mrs Sturgeon heads, has held an outright majority since 2011 and is keen to push ahead with its agenda after the past 14 opinion surveys showed that a majority of Scots now favour independence.

The Scots were peeved with the decision to leave the European Union ~ they had voted to stay, but overall the vote was in favour of leaving – and in recent months have been increasingly perturbed by London’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic. The SNP will seek to get its mandate reinforced in elections due next May and Mrs Sturgeon will claim endorsement of her plans for a second referendum should the party be returned to power, as is widely expected.

If that transpires, the government in Edinburgh will push ahead, notwithstanding the stance adopted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is on record as having said that the decisive 2014 verdict must be respected. Last August, even as he faced bitter recriminations from Scots on his handling of the virus, Mr Johnson went on record to say, “The union of the United Kingdom is, for me, the greatest political partnership the world has ever seen. It would be such a shame to lose the power, the magic of that union.”

While it is ultimately for the British Parliament to decide if it will allow a referendum, and the ruling Conservative Party has said it opposes independence for Scotland, a strong showing by the SNP could add to the pressures on Mr Johnson. At stake is a third of the United Kingdom’s landmass, a tenth of its population, an integral part of its identity and a significant contributor to the economy.

Scotland was an independent country through the Middle Ages and joined a political union with England in 1707. While political demands for selfgovernment began in the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1999 that powers were devolved to the Scottish Parliament.