Scottish parliament cannot conduct independence referendum: U.K. Supreme Court

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon holds a press conference in Edinburgh on November 23, 2022 after the Supreme Court blocked a new vote on Scottish independence.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon holds a press conference in Edinburgh on November 23, 2022 after the Supreme Court blocked a new vote on Scottish independence.
| Photo Credit: AFP

In a significant setback for Scottish nationalists, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the Scottish parliament does not have the power to conduct a referendum on Scotland’s independence from the U.K. without consent from the U.K.’s parliament in Westminster.

Scottish National Party (SNP) leader and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she respected the Court’s decision but indicated that the U.K.’s next general election would, for the SNP, be a de facto referendum on Scottish independence.

The last referendum, sanctioned by David Cameron’s Tory government, was held in 2014, when a majority (55%) of Scots voted to stay in the union. Ms. Sturgeon had intended to hold a second referendum on October 19, 2023. At her request, Scotland’s top legal officer, Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, had referred the question on whether the Scottish parliament had the power to conduct such a referendum to the Supreme Court.

Announcing the Supreme Court’s decision, its president Lord Robert Reed said that the matter was “reserved” for Westminster under the devolution settlement, that is, the laws that established a separate Scottish parliament in 1999. He also said the judgement was arrived at sooner than expected because the Court was unanimous in its conclusions and the process was prioritised.

Speaking with a ‘Stronger for Scotland’ banner behind her, shortly after the verdict, Ms. Sturgeon said she was “deeply disappointed” by the decision, adding that it would be the SNP’s core campaign issue in the next U.K. general election.

“And, as is becoming clearer by the day, achieving independence is not now just desirable, it is essential if Scotland is to escape the disaster of Brexit, the damage of policies imposed by governments we do not vote for, and the low growth-high inequality economic model that is holding us back,” she said.  Some 62% of Scots had voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum, compared to 48% of the U.K. as a whole.

Ms. Sturgeon also said that the ruling “shatters” the understanding that the Scotland Act 1998 protected the idea that the U.K. was a voluntary union of nations.

“So this ruling confirms that the notion of the U.K. as a voluntary partnership of nations, if it ever was a reality, is no longer a reality,” she said, as she expressed her willingness to reach an agreement with the U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on an “adjustment” to the devolution settlement that enables a referendum to take place.

“What I will not do, however, is go cap in hand,” she said, adding that her expectation was that the U.K government would maintain a policy of “outright democracy denial”. The SNP is the largest party in Scotland’s parliament and governs in a coalition with the Scottish Greens, who also support independence.

The leader of Scottish Labour, Anas Sarwar, said in a statement that there was no majority for independence or for a referendum, but also not for the status quo. He said that every part of the U.K. deserved better than “more misery and decline” under the Tories.

During Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in the British parliament shortly after noon on Wednesday, Mr. Sunak was asked by SNP leader Ian Blackford if he could confirm that the notion of the U.K as a voluntary union of nations was now “dead and buried”.

Mr. Sunak said he looked forward to working with Scotland on challenges everyone was facing and that the Scottish government was one of the most “powerful devolved assemblies” globally.

No. 10 Downing Street also did not agree that the next general election would be a de facto referendum on Scottish independence.

“I don’t think that is the position of the U.K. government. The Supreme Court’s decision today has been very clear,” Mr. Sunak’s press secretary told U.K. reporters after PMQs.

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