THE votes are counted. The results are in. We now know what the Scottish people have said. Nothing very much seems to have changed. It’s largely as you were in the allocation of seats. So what did the voters mean? What do their votes signify? Was this a pandemic election or was it an Indyref2 election?

Towards the campaign’s end, the SNP soft-pedalled on another referendum and instead emphasised that recovery from Covid was the priority. Indeed Nicola Sturgeon appealed explicitly in the last TV debate for the votes of those opposed to a referendum.

With counts complete, predictably the SNP can talk of little else than Indyref2. This despite polling evidence that only a third of voters think leaving the UK is an urgent priority. That, on their own admission, the SNP hasn’t worked out what independence would mean for Scottish families. And that in the constituency vote more people supported pro-Union parties at this election than pro-independence parties.

Yet the SNP spin machine has been in overdrive. SNP spinners claim the Hartlepool and local election results prove England and Scotland are now two very different polities, justifying separation.

READ MORE: Andy Maciver: Tories must say yes to Indyref2 if Scots vote for one

The insinuation is obvious – the folk voting south of the border are somehow part of an alien, morally inferior tribe, rather than part of an intricate mosaic of families and friends who share the same values and island home.

Yet the polities don’t look so different if you consider the thread that links the election results across the UK. Incumbent governments dealing with the pandemic and rolling out the vaccine have all been rewarded by strong results, including the Welsh Labour Government, which was expected to suffer losses.

They also argue that high turn-out strengthens the legitimacy of their IndyRef demand. It’s certainly true that turn-out in Scotland was unusually high by Holyrood election standards and everyone should celebrate this level of democratic engagement. But it’s a stretch to suggest this increases the legitimacy of a mandate to hold IndyRef2. The simple facts are that just as many people turned out to vote for parties who oppose independence as support it.

The UK Government – like the majority of people in Scotland – says now is not the time for another independence referendum. Even SNP leaders admit there will only be another referendum when the people are ready for it – though how to determine when this moment has arrived isn’t made clear. So despite SNP claims they have a cast iron mandate, they appear to recognise it’s still a mandate withheld. We’re right back to September 2016, when Nicola Sturgeon launched a ‘national conversation’ to build a consensus for independence. A Scotland split down the middle today is evidence of her failure then.

So the UK and Scottish Governments actually appear to agree. Not now, rather than never. This is sensible and respects Scotland’s right ultimately to determine whether or not it wishes to break away from the rest of the UK. This is not a right that can or should be exercised unilaterally and without agreement – down that road lies chaos and perpetual instability.

In 2012, the UK and Scottish Governments were able to conclude the Edinburgh Agreement, which granted the Scottish Parliament a time-limited power to hold an independence referendum subject to an agreed set of rules. Both sides recognised the importance of a referendum that was “fair, legal and decisive”. Without such agreement any referendum – held without commanding wide support across the political spectrum – would lack legitimacy and credibility.

The Herald: Nicola SturgeonNicola Sturgeon

Today’s circumstances are very different to 2011. Then the question of independence had never been put before the Scottish people. The SNP won a clear majority of Scottish Parliament seats and there was a cross-party consensus that the result represented a mandate to hold a referendum.

Today there’s little evidence that the views of Scots on the constitutional question have decisively shifted in favour of independence since they voted by a clear margin in 2014 to remain in the UK. Recent polls, which are reflected in the election vote shares, reveal continuing support for the Union. And the cross-party consensus in favour of a referendum, which existed in 2011, doesn’t exist today.

The reality is as it was five years ago after the last Holyrood election. The make-up of the Scottish Parliament is much the same. And Nicola Sturgeon’s electoral calculations are much the same. She will not press for another independence referendum unless and until she calculates she can win it.

The current deadlock will only be broken if one of our political leaders is able to unify a deeply divided country. The irony is that, if this is true, then Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon share the same mission.

Nicola Sturgeon’s difficulty is she’s trapped by her ideology. Her party’s core principle is to divide and separate. Boris Johnson – despite his demonisation in Scotland – is not encumbered by such ideological baggage.

READ MORE: Andrew Dunlop: Sturgeon is not the right leader for Scotland’s post-Covid recovery

The least convincing SNP attack line during the election joined the words Boris Johnson and austerity in the same sentence. If we have learned one thing about the Prime Minister he is not a fiscal conservative – either in his domestic or public life. He is not the political son of Thatcher.

If anything he is the political son of Harold Macmillan, who built a record number of homes in the 1950s. And his electoral coalition depends on keeping onside former Labour voters in the north of England and the Midlands. If his government has a guiding mission, it’s to tackle seriously the UK’s chronic regional economic inequalities.

Scotland has a shared interest with Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England in building up alternative magnets for economic activity to match the power and weight of London and the south east. If ever there’s a unifying project then this is it. To borrow the words of Mark Twain – reports of the UK’s death are greatly exaggerated.

Andrew Dunlop was an adviser to former Conservative prime minister David Cameron during the 2014 independence referendum