The UK Supreme Court has ruled that the Scottish government cannot stand unilaterally a second referendum on whether to secede from the UK, in a blow to pro-independence campaigners who will be welcomed by the pro-union establishment in Westminster.
The court unanimously rejected an attempt by the Scottish National Party (SNP) to force a vote next October because it lacked the approval of the UK parliament.
But the decision is unlikely to succeed the heated debate on independence that has weighed on British politics for a decade.
Scotland last held a vote on the issue, with Westminster’s approval, in 2014, when voters rejected the prospect of independence by 55% to 45%.
The pro-independence SNP nonetheless dominated politics north of the border in the years that followed, at the expense of mainstream pro-union groups. Successive SNP leaders have vowed to give Scottish voters another chance to vote, particularly since the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s latest push has involved holding an advisory referendum at the end of next year, similar to the 2016 poll that led to Brexit. But the land’s highest court agreed that even a non-legally binding vote would require Westminster oversight, given its practical implications.
“A lawfully held referendum would have significant political consequences for the Union and the UK Parliament,” Lord Reed said as he read the court’s judgment.
“It would either strengthen or weaken the democratic legitimacy of the Union and of the British Parliament’s sovereignty over Scotland, whichever opinion prevails, and support or undermine the democratic credentials of the independence movement,” he said.
Sturgeon said she accepted the decision on Wednesday, but tried to frame the decision as another pillar of the argument for secession. “A law that does not allow Scotland to choose its own future without Westminster’s consent exposes as a myth any notion of the UK as a voluntary partnership and makes (a) case ‘for independence,'” a she wrote on Twitter.
She accused the British government of “outright denial of democracy” in a speech to reporters later on Wednesday.
Sturgeon said his next step in his bid to secure a vote would be to mark the next UK general election – due for January 2025 at the latest – as a proxy referendum in Scotland on the way forward.
But British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak heralded the court’s “clear and final decision” as an opportunity to get out of the independence debate. “The people of Scotland want us to work to solve the main challenges we collectively face, whether it’s the economy, support for the NHS or even support for Ukraine,” he said. in Parliament.
Opinion polls suggest Scots remain sharply divided on whether to break with the UK, and that a clear two-way consensus has yet to emerge.
England and Scotland have been joined in a political union since 1707, but many Scots have long bristled at what they see as a one-sided relationship dominated by England. Scottish voters have consistently rejected the ruling Conservative Party at the polls and voted overwhelmingly – but unsuccessfully – against Brexit, intensifying arguments on the issue over the past decade.
Since 1999, Scotland has had a devolved government, meaning many, but not all, decisions are made in the SNP-led Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh.