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The UK government's Scottish independence dilemma

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

image copyrightPA Media
image captionSNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is demanding another referendum

If you can tear yourself away from the counting of votes in the United States, (and I appreciate if you are into politics, that's not easy right now), it is well worth noting what's going on in the warm up to a big political fight on this side of the pond, arguments that we are going to be talking about a lot in the coming months.

There is a huge set of elections, straddling many parts of the UK next May, and the most contentious arguments are likely to be in the elections for the Scottish Parliament.

In that poll, you guessed it, the central question on the ballot paper is likely to be that of Scottish independence.

With a solid trend of polls backing independence in recent months, the SNP is hopeful of another convincing result in the May ballot that will give them a mandate for another referendum on whether Scotland should stay in the UK.

Trump comparison

Their problem, even if they win convincingly in May, is that the law says it's up to the UK government to decide whether or not there should be another referendum - a vote some Scots are massively eager to have, but which others want like a hole in the head. You can read more about the laws around a referendum here.

And the SNP themselves said, at the time, that the 2014 referendum was a "once in a generation opportunity" for those who want Scotland to be independent.

The UK government's problem is that if the SNP does win convincingly in May on a promise of having another referendum, denying that would just amplify the argument that Westminster doesn't listen to what Scots want, and likely increase support for independence.

image copyrightReuters
image captionAlister Jack has rejected a referendum for a "generation"

That's why the comments from Scottish Secretary Alister Jack this morning are notable. He said that "once in a generation" means there can't be an independence referendum for many, many years.

Not surprisingly, the SNP have leapt on his words, even comparing his comments to President Trump's bizarre, sometimes rambling, statements since the US election - so full of claims without evidence about fraud or irregularities in the voting that some of the American TV networks cut him off while he was still talking.

Acute dilemma

One US politician making wild allegations about fraud is obviously not the same as another in the UK hardening their opposition to another kind of poll taking place, which the government has the legal right to permit or not.

Yet the UK government does have an acute dilemma, and it knows it.

And not everyone in Westminster agrees that the answer to a hypothetical big SNP win in May can be, "no, not now, and not nearly ever".

To put it mildly, there is a range of opinion in government on how to meet the demands for a referendum in practice.

There are concerns among Tories too about Labour's weakness at Holyrood, which you can read about here.

At the very least, the UK government intends to be more present, more prominent, in Scotland, to move away from what one government source admits was an attitude of "devolve and forget" that has built up over successive UK administrations.

But making the argument for the Union more obviously, and more visibly is one thing - there is no guarantee that in the coming months Scottish voters will like what they see.

Related Topics

  • Alister Jack
  • SNP (Scottish National Party)
  • UK government