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Scotland Goes To Polls In Crucial Election That Could Trigger New Independence Vote

Voters arrive Thursday at the War Memorial building being used as a polling station in Aboyne in Aberdeenshire for Scotland's parliamentary election.
Andrew Milligan
PA Images via Getty Images
Voters arrive Thursday at the War Memorial building being used as a polling station in Aboyne in Aberdeenshire for Scotland's parliamentary election.

Seven years after choosing to remain in the United Kingdom and five years after opposing moves to leave the European Union, voters in Scotland are going to the polls once again Thursday in a parliamentary election that could set the stage for yet another independence referendum.

The Scottish Nationalist Party, or SNP, is favored to win a fourth term, but its chances of gaining an outright majority in the semi-autonomous parliament are less certain.

The party has gained momentum among many who opposed Brexit and have been suffering economic hardship due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Neil Farquharson, a software engineer in Edinburgh, told NPR that the way he sees it, "It's a normal situation for a country to be independent."

"You've got control of your own destiny," he said.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's first minister and leader of the SNP, has described this election as the most important in the country's history. If her party can wrangle an outright majority in the 129-seat Scottish Parliament, it would give her room to make good on a promise to demand of London the legal authority to hold another independence referendum by the end of 2023.

In 2014, voters in Scotland were asked, "Should Scotland be an independent country?" By a margin of 45% to 55%, they rejected the proposition, opting to remain in the 300-year-old United Kingdom. But two years later, on the question of whether the U.K. should stay in the EU, Scots overwhelmingly said yes, but were heavily outvoted by the much more populous England, tipping the referendum in favor of Brexit.

The last time the SNP won a majority was in 2011 when the party leveraged its victory to press the original independence referendum.

Since then, the urge for independence has grown. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, facing the possibility of yet another ballot on the question, has preemptively said he considers the question settled seven years ago.

Anthony McGann, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, told Reuters that Scotland's desire for independence has "been growing for a considerable amount of time."

"If you have a Scottish government asking for a referendum and a U.K. government not willing to grant one, it is going to put an enormous strain on the existing constitutional structure," he says.

But others, such as Jonathan Ainslie, who studies Roman law at the University of Edinburgh, feel close ties to Great Britain, made up of England, Scotland and Wales.

"I think the union is important for our national security," Ainslie told NPR.

"I think it's important and to support Scotland's economy in the future, but more important than any of this, if we were to become independent, I would feel that I was robbed of my British identity," he said.

NPR's Frank Langfitt contributed reporting from Edinburgh, Scotland.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.