Historic SNP victory but Scotland remains deeply divided on independence

Nicola Sturgeon outside Bute House Credit: PA

The ballot boxes have been locked away, the counting centres closed. The campaign posters are coming down. Successful candidates are savouring the moment, the defeated licking their wounds.

The 2021 Scottish parliament election is over. We've come to the end of the electoral process. But the argument central to the campaign, over independence, is not at an end. It's begun all over again. In truth it has never stopped.

But before reflecting on that, it is worth saying that the SNP winning with 64 MSPs, just one short of an overall majority, was as Nicola Sturgeon said "historic and extraordinary".

Her party has been in government for the best part of a decade and a half. In 'normal' political times, problems mount up for those in power and voters hanker for change.

Ms Sturgeon and the SNP will now run Scotland for the next five years with control over a wide range of issues including education, much of income tax, the NHS, justice, local government, economic development, some welfare benefits and more.

There are challenges aplenty in those areas but on top of that the First Minister will have to oversee recovery from the effects of the COVID pandemic, on the health of the nation, and the health of the economy.

Independence supporters outside Holyrood Credit: PA

But there is more still. The SNP manifesto promised to hold a referendum on independence and Ms Sturgeon has said that she has a mandate from the voters to do just that.

Adding in the eight Scottish Green MSPs, there is now a Holyrood majority in favour of indyref2, but the idea is opposed by the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems. And the UK Tory government too.

So what happens next?

The First Minister told the BBC's Andrew Marr today that she would be back at her desk in her official residence, Bute House in Edinburgh, this afternoon dealing with COVID. We're expecting an update on further lifting of restrictions on Tuesday.

However, she was also asked about her definition of when the pandemic crisis would be over, which is when she says she will embark on the process of putting forward plans for indyref2.

Ms Sturgeon was asked whether it could be be Spring next year, given the expectation that life will be back to close to normal by August and the Bank of England is predicting an economic bounce back in the second half of this year.

The First Minister replied "that would certainly work for that timetable", and fit with her saying she wanted indyref2 in the first half of the next parliament, but she could not yet confirm that she would table legislation early next year.

For the UK government, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove was repeatedly pressed today on whether the UK government would take the Scottish government to court if it passed a referendum bill. 

The Scotland Act, passed by the UK parliament, which created Holyrood, says that the Union between England and Scotland is a matter reserved to Westminster.

Mr Gove clearly did not want to even be seen to suggest that there would be a court challenge, knowing that could be seen as Westminster using a legal stick to beat Holyrood.

He maintained the UK government was "not going to go down the route of talking about legal challenges..." and called for a "team UK" approach to rebuilding after COVID, which he argued was the priority of the people of Scotland and the whole of the UK.

Ms Sturgeon too said she hoped it would not come to court, but if the Scottish government pass such a law at Holyrood, it is hard to see how the UK government could do anything other than challenge it in the Supreme Court.

Unless, of course, they were to change tack completely and say they support a referendum, which there is no sign of from Boris Johnson's latest interviews.

In her post-election victory speech Ms Sturgeon said tackling the pandemic was her immediate priority, but she also said that indyref2 was "the will of the country".

It is reasonable to assume it is the will of most people who voted SNP and Green - 49% in the constituency vote, or 50.1% on the Scotland-wide list vote if you add in Alex Salmond's Alba party to the SNP and Greens.

But it is also reasonable to conclude that the will of most people who voted for the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems - who were very clear where they stood - is opposition to indyref2. 

So this election, if it has shown anything, proves once again that Scotland continues to be divided, split right down the middle, on independence.

That does not appear to be quite so true in the south of Scotland where the 'thick blue line', geographically speaking, of Tory seats just north of the Border remains in tact.

However, it is also worth noting that in all three seats which stayed in Conservative hands - Galloway and West Dumfries, held by Finlay Carson, Dumfriesshire, held by Oliver Mundell, and Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, held by Rachel Hamilton -  the SNP vote went up. 

Labour was badly squeezed, suggesting some tactical voting for the Tories on the issue of the Union, and the Lib Dems - once so strong in the Borders - had a very poor performance. 

Because of the proportional voting system in the south of Scotland region, the SNP lost two MSPs, Joan McAlpine and Paul Wheelhouse, with Emma Harper the sole remaining nationalist.

Labour lost Claudia Beamish but Colin Smyth returns to be joined by Carol Mochan, and Martin Whitfield.

The Tories Brian Whittle returns, joined by Craig Hoy and Sharon Dowey. 

Farewell, then, to some familiar faces, and welcome to some new ones whose impact on the parliament ITV Border will, of course, be closely monitoring.

They will join a parliament with a large number of new MSPs, a more diverse parliament (at last), with two women of colour elected, a parliament with more women.

And a parliament elected by the highest turnout there has been since Holyrood came into being in 1999, which can only be good for democracy.

But whatever their hopes and aspirations for their parliamentary careers, whatever issues and campaigns they want to pursue individually, none of these fresh faced new MSPs, nor their more seasoned colleagues, will be able to escape taking part in the continuing constitutional debate.

Welcome to Holyrood 2021: a divided parliament in a divided nation.