Scotland lacks the authority to conduct a fresh referendum on independence without the approval of the British government, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday. The decision is a setback for the Scottish government’s effort to secede from the UK.
The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, declared that while she would respect the decision, Scotland’s “democratic right to choose our own future” was at risk.
The Scottish Parliament “does not have the power to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence,” the top court ruled.
Six weeks after lawyers for the pro-independence Scottish administration and the Conservative U.K. government argued their cases at hearings in London, Supreme Court President Robert Reed said the five justices were unanimous in the verdict. The ruling was announced.
Later on Wednesday, pro-independence demonstrators intend to gather in Edinburgh outside the Scottish Parliament as well as at other locations.
Should Scotland become an independent nation? is the question that will be the subject of a referendum that will be held in the semi-autonomous Scottish government in October.
The United Kingdom’s government in London rejects a vote, claiming that the issue was decided in a referendum held in 2014 in which Scottish voters rejected independence by a margin of 55% to 45%.
However, the pro-independence government in Edinburgh wants to reconsider, claiming that the political and economic climate has been drastically altered by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, which the majority of Scottish voters opposed.
There is a majority in favor of independence in the Scottish Parliament, according to Sturgeon, who claims that this gives her the democratic authority to call a fresh referendum on secession.
The chief legal advisor for the Scottish government, Dorothy Bain, stated that the majority of Scottish lawmakers were elected on promises to hold a new independence referendum during hearings before the Supreme Court last month. A referendum, according to her, would be advisory rather than legally binding, even though a “yes” vote would give Scotland strong momentum to secede.
James Eadie, an attorney for the U.K. government, argued that the decision to hold a referendum should be made by the London-based U.K. Parliament because it “is of critical importance to the United Kingdom as a whole,” not just Scotland.
Justices of the Supreme Court concurred. It is evident, they claimed, that “a Bill which makes provision for an independence referendum — on ending the sovereignty of the Parliament of the United Kingdom over Scotland — has more than a loose or consequential connection with the sovereignty of that Parliament.”
The court “was not asked, and cannot be asked, to express a view on the political question of whether Scotland should become an independent country,” Reed emphasized.
The court’s decision, according to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, was “clear and definitive.” He urged politicians in Scotland and London to put aside their differences and concentrate on urgent problems like the U.K.’s cost-of-living crisis.
In the House of Commons, Sunak said, “The people of Scotland want us to be working on fixing the major challenges that we collectively face, whether that’s the economy, supporting the NHS, or even supporting Ukraine.”
The decision, however, was “a hard pill for any supporter of independence — and surely indeed for any supporter of democracy,” according to Sturgeon.
“A so-called partnership in which one partner is denied the right to choose a different future … cannot be described in any way as voluntary or even a partnership at all,” she said. She ruled out holding an unauthorized referendum, saying “the route we take must be lawful and democratic for independence to be achieved.”
Sturgeon declared that she would effectively hold a referendum on ending Scotland’s three-century union with England during the upcoming U.K. national election, which is scheduled for two years from now. She announced that a special conference would be held by the ruling Scottish National Party the following year to finalize the details of that strategy.
Polls indicate that voters are largely opposed to holding another referendum anytime soon and that Scots are roughly evenly divided on the issue of independence.
Since 1707, Scotland and England have shared a political union. Since 1999, Scotland has operated with its own parliament, government, and set of laws governing public health, education, and other issues. Defense and fiscal policy are under the control of the U.K. government in London.