UK top court rejects Scottish independence vote plans

Nicola Sturgeon
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On Wednesday 23 November, Britain’s highest court rejected a bid by the devolved Scottish government in Edinburgh to hold a new referendum on independence without London’s consent.

The unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court torpedoed the Scottish nationalist government’s push to hold a second plebiscite next year. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the Scottish National Party (SNP), said she respected the ruling, but accused Westminster of showing “contempt” for Scotland’s democratic will.
Scotland’s government will instead treat the next UK general election – due by early 2025 – as a “de facto referendum” on separation, she told a news conference. Sturgeon added:

We must and we will find another democratic, lawful and constitutional means by which the Scottish people can express their will. In my view, that can only be an election.

Mandate

The Supreme Court’s Scottish president, Robert Reed, said the power to call a referendum was “reserved” for the UK parliament under Scotland’s devolution settlement. Reed said that, therefore:

the Scottish parliament does not have the power to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence.

Sturgeon’s SNP-led government in Edinburgh wanted to hold a vote next October on the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The UK government, which oversees constitutional affairs for the whole country, has repeatedly refused to give Edinburgh the power to hold a referendum. It considers that the last one – in 2014, when 55 percent of Scots rejected independence – settled the question for a generation.

However, Sturgeon and her party say there is now an “indisputable mandate” for another independence referendum, particularly in light of the UK’s departure from the European Union. Most voters in Scotland opposed Brexit. Scotland’s last parliamentary election returned a majority of pro-independence lawmakers for the first time. Opinion polls, however, indicate only a slight lead for those in favour of a split.

At the UK Supreme Court last month, lawyers for the government in London argued that the Scottish government could not decide to hold a referendum on its own. Permission had to be granted because the constitutional make-up of the four nations of the United Kingdom was a reserved matter for the government in London.

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“Right to self-determination”

Lawyers for the Scottish government wanted a ruling on the rights of the devolved parliament in Edinburgh if London continued to block an independence referendum.

Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, Scotland’s top law officer, said Scottish independence was a “live and significant” issue in Scottish politics. The Scottish government was seeking to create its own legal framework for another referendum, arguing that the “right to self-determination is a fundamental and inalienable right”.

However, the Supreme Court rejected international comparisons raised by the SNP. Reed said that international law on self-determination only applied to former colonies, or where people are oppressed by military occupation, or when a defined group is denied its political and civil rights. He concluded that none of that applied to Scotland. He also rejected the SNP’s argument that a referendum would only be “advisory” and not legally binding. Any such vote would carry “important political consequences” regardless of its legal status, the judge said.

However, there was robust argument against this on social media. Economic justice campaigner Richard Murphy argued that there was a political element to the Supreme Court’s decision:

Yes Cymru, a campaign for Welsh independence, shared their dismay:

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