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The Scottish Bagpiper

Having voted against the exit from the European Union in the 2016 referendum, there is at this juncture a renewed shrill for independence in the face of Boris Johnson’s refusal to sanction a second referendum, and amid mounting domestic criticism of the ruling SNP’s record.

SNS | New Delhi |

With the idea of Brexit having fructified as February unfolded, the outlook for Nicola Sturgeon’s government in Scotland is rather uncertain. Having voted against the exit from the European Union in the 2016 referendum, there is at this juncture a renewed shrill for independence in the face of Boris Johnson’s refusal to sanction a second referendum, and amid mounting domestic criticism of the ruling SNP’s record.

More accurately, the uncertainty is as political as it is personal. The finance secretary, Derek Mackay’s resignation and suspension from the party after having sent hundreds of text messages to a 16-year-old male is a major personal and political event, one that is bound to bear on the prospects of the SNP. It clearly has compounded the earlier scandal involving the former SNP leader, Alex Salmond, who will face trial very shortly for alleged sexual offences.

Altogether, the brewing cocktail has brought the Sturgeon government under a cloud, even as the narrative in the rest of the United Kingdom has been a boost for the likes of Mr Johnson. The heady note of the Scottish bagpiper chimes oddly with the circumstances. The waters are increasingly murkier at a constitutionally critical juncture for Ms Sturgeon. The scandals within form a key part of a major set of tests for the First Minister, her judgment, her party and her government.

The scandal over Mackay’s conduct is only one of the challenges facing the party, despite the opportunity afforded by Brexit. Indeed, Brexit has given the nationalists a new grievance, which is resonant enough. It does not improve the economic case for independence or make it easier to achieve. But the pro-independence side’s defeat in the referendum is a bigger problem for Ms Sturgeon. Mr Johnson never tires of pointing out that the SNP recognised the “once-per-generation” status of that ballot.

He is not off the mark either when he reminds nationalists that Scotland recently chose to stay in the United Kingdom. Many Scottish voters aver that the First Minister’s interests should be riveted to governance rather than a referendum replay. Brexit has changed facts and minds, so the “referendum rematch” is democratically imperative. Some opinion polls indicate a slender proindependence majority, with a distinct shift in that direction having been caused by a migration of EU remainers who had voted ‘No’.

Ms Sturgeon wants to ride that mood to victory in next year’s Scottish parliament elections. Such a result would, she believes, signal enough backing for a second referendum that Mr Johnson would be obliged to grant. More radical nationalists believe Westminster’s permission is not required, but legally it is. The First Minister is wise to stick to the letter of the law. An aggressive pitch for independence would suffocate Scotland’s prospects of one day rejoining the European Union. It is unfortunate that personal aberrations might come to bear in the overall construct.