Scotland independence debate dominates UK polls

·4-min read

Polling stations across Britain opened Thursday in the first local and regional elections since Brexit and the coronavirus crisis, with Scotland the main focus after calls for a new independence referendum that could reshape the country.

The votes will also test backing for Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party after he led Britain out of the EU and through the pandemic, suffering Europe's highest death toll but also its fastest vaccine rollout.

Johnson has recently shrugged off a scandal over costly renovations to his Downing Street flat.

Voting on what has been dubbed "Super Thursday" is being held for local councils in England, regional mayors, including in London, and for the devolved parliaments in Wales and Scotland.

Most attention is being paid to the vote for the Scottish Parliament, as the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) wants a new independence referendum when the pandemic subsides.

SNP leader and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is seeking a parliamentary majority after boosting her popularity with strong public engagement during the pandemic.

"Getting through this crisis is my priority," she said in a televised debate on Tuesday.

The SNP has capitalised on widespread disillusion with the UK parliament in London to become the dominant political force in Scotland but currently forms a minority government.

In Glasgow, Lorna McClure, a 60-year-old cleaner, said she was "all for Nicola Sturgeon".

"I think she is really good for Scotland and I want independence," she told AFP.

But Raghav Jay, a 35-year-old MBA student said: "I think I would rather Scotland stayed within the UK. So I'd prefer a party which is going to support that."

Latest opinion polls suggest the SNP will gain a slim majority for the first time since 2011, keeping it in power, although other surveys have indicated a coalition was likely.

Securing the powers from London to hold a new referendum on independence and a "yes" vote is less certain, however, while recent surveys point to a fall-off in support for going it alone.

- 'Reckless, irresponsible' -

Most Scots rejected Brexit, which has boosted independence sentiment, although fears of fresh economic upheaval after the pandemic are bolstering support for staying in the UK.

The SNP pledges that an independent Scotland would seek to rejoin the European Union but the practicalities of that are sparking concern.

"We need strength in unity and to start having new borders... would be madness," said Alec Telfer, 64, president of the Blackface Sheep Breeders Association.

Scots cast two votes: one for a constituency MSP (member of the Scottish parliament) and one electing regional MSPs in a proportional representation system.

Johnson has said the 2014 referendum where 55 percent of Scots voted "no" closed the debate for a generation.

"This is not the time to have a reckless and I think, irresponsible, referendum," he said Wednesday.

The SNP insists it will only hold a referendum that is legally valid, although Sturgeon's predecessor Alex Salmond and his newly formed Alba party want an immediate vote.

- 'Red Wall' -

Polling stations close at 10:00 pm, with most results expected from Friday and into early next week as social distancing rules for those counting slows the process.

The outcome will be watched closely to see whether Johnson's party manages to hold on to gains in the 2019 general election and previous local votes after the 2016 Brexit referendum.

The main opposition Labour party, led by Keir Starmer since last year, is hoping for gains in its so-called "Red Wall" seats in northern England that it lost to the Conservatives in 2019.

It also wants to hang on to the northeastern port town of Hartlepool, which has had Labour MPs since the 1970s, in a UK parliamentary by-election being held at the same time.

Victory there would boost Johnson, and heap pressure on Starmer, as he tries to reposition Labour after the hard-left leadership of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.

In London, Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan -- Britain's most prominent Muslim politician -- is predicted to win a second four-year term in the high-profile mayoral race.

No candidate has the profile of Jihyun Park, who is standing as a councillor for the Conservatives in Bury, near Manchester in northwest England.

She arrived in Britain 13 years ago after fleeing a North Korean prison camp.

"The UK people welcomed me to this land and I finally found my freedom. I want to pay back," she told AFP in February.

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