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Court Rules Scotland Cannot Hold Independence Vote Without UK Approval

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By Benjamin Fox

(EurActiv) — The Scottish government cannot hold a new referendum on independence without the consent of the UK government, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday (23 November), in a major blow to the pro-independence campaign. 

Officials in London had been confident that the court would rule in their favour. The court ruled on Wednesday that under the UK’s devolution settlement the Scottish parliament did not have the power to legislate for a referendum on independence because such a bill would relate to the future of the union of the UK, a matter reserved to Westminster. 

The ruling creates an impasse but provides “clarity” on the legal situation, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said. Sturgeon’s government had planned to hold a referendum in October 2023 and had begun to publish a series of papers on the policy priorities of an independent Scotland. 

“Today’s ruling blocks one route to Scotland’s voice being heard on independence – but in a democracy our voice cannot and will not be silenced,” said Sturgeon.

The Scottish government has ruled out holding a Catalan-style referendum without the consent of Westminster, with Sturgeon promising that the route to independence must be “lawful and democratic”.

She added that the next UK general election, likely to be held in 2024, would be treated as a de facto referendum on independence.  

“The next national election scheduled for Scotland is the UK general election – making that both the first and most obvious opportunity to seek what I describe as a de facto referendum,” she said. 

The Scottish National Party (SNP) won 48 of the 59 Scottish constituencies represented in the House of Commons and would also look to obtain over 50% of the vote, its highest ever percentage of the vote. In the meantime, the Alba party, led by former SNP First Minister Alex Salmond, has broken away from the SNP, potentially splitting the independence vote. At last year’s Scottish parliament elections the SNP took 48% of the vote. 

The SNP is now expected to decide on the details of this approach at a special party conference early in 2023. However, there is no guarantee that the UK government would accept the results of the next general election to Westminster as providing a mandate for Scottish independence. 

“Majority support for independence is an essential requirement of Scotland, or any country, becoming independent,” she added. 

Public opinion on independence has fluctuated since the 2014 referendum and demands for a second referendum grew after the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, despite Scotland voting by a nearly two-to-one margin in favour of remaining in the bloc. Most opinion polls this year have indicated a slight lead for Scotland remaining in the UK. 

The SNP should “drop their referendum obsession” said Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, following the ruling. 

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