It’s just an exit poll. They can be wrong. They were, substantially, in 1992 and lowballed the Tory result in 2015. Those caveats stated, we have to address that number for the SNP. Fifty-five seats, every seat but four north of the border, would represent the Nationalists’ best result since 2015. Before polls closed, SNP insiders were nervous they might lose some marginal seats to a combination of the Tories and Labour. If the exit poll is broadly accurate, Nicola Sturgeon has pulled off a second historic victory. Since she placed Brexit and Scexit at the centre of her campaign — stopping the former and securing a second referendum on the latter — we can expect her to say the result establishes a mandate for just that.
The problem for Sturgeon is that, again, if the exit poll is accurate, Boris Johnson has bagged himself a substantial majority. Power over the constitution is reserved to the UK Parliament and a Tory-dominated Westminster is unlikely to grant any request from Bute House. She maintains the House of Commons has no moral right to block her path, but what practically can she do?
At the most extreme end is the Rhodesian option: a unilateral declaration of independence. Legally, she would be in highly dubious territory and, besides, it’s not really her style. She’s a Glasgow solicitor, not a revolutionary. Another route would be the Catalonia option: a wildcat referendum held without the Section 30 order required by the Scotland Act. Some in her party would like her to choose this option, figuring that Westminster wouldn’t have the stomach to copy Madrid’s thuggish approach to the separatists of Barcelona.
Then there is the Gina Miller option: they could sue their way to independence. Sturgeon’s constitution minister Mike Russell has suggested that, in the event Westminster slaps down a Section 30 order, legal action ‘cannot be ruled out’. It would be messy, potentially putting the Supreme Court in the position of ordering a UK Government to give secessionists a chance to dissolve the United Kingdom. Given the ill will Tories already feel towards that institution, the executive and the judiciary would be on course for a grisly collision.
Another, less exciting scenario: Sturgeon could simply bide her time and use the next 17 months before the 2021 Scottish Parliament election stoking resent against Westminster for denying Scots another chance to decide their future. A campaign like that could bring them another 2011-style outright majority at Holyrood, which they would assert as an undeniable mandate for a second Scexit referendum. The Prime Minister could still send them packing but even he might get a little queasy about the issue of democratic moral authority.
Of course, if the exit poll is wrong, this is all academic. But if it’s not, expect to hear the phrase ‘constitutional crisis’ a lot in the coming hours, days and weeks.