https://www.theguardian.com-Scotland’s first minister sees general election as independence referendum after UK supreme court judgment on second poll
At a news conference held hours after the judgment, Scotland’s first minister said: “Today’s ruling blocks one route to Scotland’s voice being heard on independence … 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.”
Downing Street immediately rejected the SNP’s proposal, while senior Westminster Tories said the prime minister’s strategy now was to simply avoid the issue of another independence referendum altogether.
One Tory insider said: “Rishi [Sunak, the prime minister] will just sit on his hands and do nothing. That’s the best approach now.”
The supreme court ruled that in the absence of an agreement between the two governments, as happened in advance of the 2014 independence vote, the Scottish parliament did not have the power to legislate for a referendum.
Sturgeon told reporters that she respected the ruling but accused Westminster of showing “contempt” for Scotland’s democratic will, a view echoed by pro-independence supporters gathered for rallies outside the Holyrood parliament and across the country on Wednesday evening.
Four consecutive prime ministers have refused Sturgeon’s requests to grant her a section 30 order, the section of the 1998 Scotland Act – the legislation establishing the Scottish parliament – that allows Holyrood to pass laws in areas that are normally reserved for Westminster, such as the union.
The question was referred to the court by Scotland’s lord advocate, Dorothy Bain KC, at Sturgeon’s request after the latter confounded critics in June by announcing her preferred date for another referendum as 19 October 2023.
Bain argued that the referendum bill was within Holyrood’s powers because the vote would merely be consultative and would not have any immediate consequences. Independence would be achieved through lengthy negotiations, as happened with Brexit.
Delivering the unequivocal judgment, the supreme court president, Robert Reed, said the effects of legislation were “not restricted to legal consequences but can include its practical consequences”. The outcome of a referendum would “possess the authority … of a democratic expression of the view of the Scottish electorate” and would “either strengthen or weaken the democratic legitimacy of the union”.
Therefore, Lord Reed said, the five judges had concluded unanimously that “it is clear the proposed bill has more than a loose or consequential connection with reserved matters”.
Sir James Eadie KC, a senior lawyer acting for the UK government, had suggested that Scottish ministers’ attempts to seek a ruling were “premature” and “theoretical” because the referendum bill had not yet been presented to Holyrood. The argument was rejected by Reed. He said the bill was within the scope of the court and he accepted Bain’s argument that it was in the public interest that the court should provide an authoritative ruling.
Sunak welcomed the “clear and definitive ruling” from the supreme court. At prime minister’s questions he told MPs: “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 indeed supporting Ukraine. Now is the time for politicians to work together and that’s what this government will do.”
The prime minister’s press secretary asked if she agreed with SNP’s plan that the next general election should be a de facto independence referendum, said: “I don’t think that is the position of the UK government. The supreme court’s decision today has been very clear.”
Senior Westminster Tories said the prime minister’s strategy now was to simply avoid the issue of another independence referendum. They suggested the “balls [were] now all in Nicola’s court” and that the pressure was “all on her” to set out a route forward.
A former cabinet minister added: “Our position will be exactly the same, steady as she goes. He just needs to avoid any own goals.”
They claimed that even Sturgeon recognised that there was little appetite for another referendum in Scotland. “She must know there just isn’t a clamour for it right now, even among people who support independence,” they said.
Recent opinion polls suggest that Scotland is fairly evenly split on the independence question, with a very narrow majority in favour of staying in the UK. They also suggest that far fewer voters – fewer than a third – want a referendum next October.
At her press conference Sturgeon insisted the SNP “is not abandoning the referendum route, Westminster is blocking it”. She said the ruling confirmed that “the notion of the UK as a voluntary partnership of nations, if it ever was a reality, is no longer a reality”.
Acknowledging the “frustration and disappointment” felt by SNP supporters and the wider independence movement after the judgment, Sturgeon said this must be short-lived. “The fact is, we have work to do. The case for Scotland becoming independent is more compelling and urgent than ever.”
She said she would ask the SNP’s national executive to convene a special party conference in the new year to discuss detail of the de facto referendum plan, and in the meantime the party would launch “a major campaign in defence of Scottish democracy”.
A spokesperson for the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, categorically ruled out agreeing to a second Scottish independence referendum after the next election. “There will be no deals going into the election, no deals coming out of the election,” he said.
The Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, said that while it was right for the Scottish government to seek legal clarity on the question, “there is not a majority in Scotland for a referendum or independence”.
He said: “The supreme court’s answer was clear and I thank them for their speedy work in this case. We must now focus on the problems facing our country, from rising bills to the crisis in our NHS.”