Britain’s High Court ruled that the Scottish government could not stand unilaterally A second referendum on whether to secede from the UK, in a blow to independence campaigners that would be welcomed by the pro-union Westminster Institution.
The court unanimously rejected the Scottish National Party’s attempt to force a vote in October, as it did not have the approval of the British Parliament.
But the decision is unlikely to stop hot debate About independence looming over British politics a decade ago.
The last time Scotland held a vote on the issue with Westminster approval was in 2014, when voters rejected the prospect of independence by 55% to 45%.
However, politics north of the border was dominated by the pro-independence SNP in the intervening years, at the expense of traditional pro-union groups. Successive SNP leaders have pledged to give Scottish voters another chance to vote, particularly since the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016.
The latest push from SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon includes an advisory referendum late next year, similar to the 2016 poll that led to Brexit. But the country’s High Court agreed that even a non-legally binding vote would require oversight from Westminster, given its practical implications.
Reading the court’s ruling, Lord Reed said: “A legal referendum would have important political consequences in relation to the Union and the Parliament of the United Kingdom.”
He said: “It will either strengthen or weaken the democratic legitimacy of the Federation and the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament over Scotland, depending on the prevailing view, and will support or undermine the democratic credibility of the independence movement.”
Sturgeon said she accepted the ruling on Wednesday, but tried to frame the decision as another pillar in the secession controversy. She wrote on Twitter: “The law that does not allow Scotland to choose our future without the consent of Westminster debunks the myth of any idea of the UK as a voluntary partnership and makes a case ‘for independence’.”
She accused the British government of a “total denial of democracy” in a speech to reporters later on Wednesday.
Sturgeon said her next step in her efforts to achieve a vote would be to characterize the next UK general election – due in January 2025 at the latest – as a proxy referendum in Scotland on which course to take.
But British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the court’s “clear and final decision” as an opportunity to move on from the independence debate. “The people of Scotland want us to work to collectively fix the major challenges we face, whether that’s the economy, supporting the NHS or actually supporting Ukraine,” he said in parliament.
Polls suggest that Scots remain narrowly divided over secession from the UK, and that a clear consensus in either direction is yet to emerge.
England and Scotland have joined in a political union since 1707, but many Scots have long worried about what they see as a one-sided relationship dominated by England. Scottish voters have historically rejected the ruling Conservative Party at the polls and voted strongly – but in vain – against Brexit, intensifying debate on the issue in the past decade.
Since 1999, Scotland has had a devolved government, which means that many, but not all, decisions are made in the Scottish Parliament led by the SNP in Holyrood, Edinburgh.
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