After legal setback, Scotland to seek ‘de facto referendum’ on independence from UK

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After legal setback, Scotland to seek ‘de facto referendum’ on independence from UK

By Rob Harris

London: The UK Supreme Court has ruled that the Scottish government cannot hold a legal referendum on independence without agreement from Westminster, scuppering a plan to hold a vote next year.

Britain’s highest court unanimously decided that such a move would affect the integrity of the union. The decision cuts off the legal route for Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to hold a re-run of the 2014 referendum in which Scots voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent in favour of remaining in Britain.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says she will keep fighting for a vote on independence.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says she will keep fighting for a vote on independence.Credit:Getty Images

Sturgeon, who is also leader of the Scottish National party, said that she would now seek to make the next UK general election, due by the end of 2024, “a de facto referendum” on independence.

She had proposed a plebiscite in October next year, but Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, Scotland’s most senior legal officer, referred the draft Scottish parliament bill to the Supreme Court because of doubts the vote would be legal.

Lord Robert Reed, president of the Supreme Court, said on Wednesday the judges agreed that holding an advisory referendum on independence would be beyond the Scottish parliament’s powers.


“A lawfully held referendum would have important political consequences relating to the union and the UK parliament,” Reed said. “Its outcome would possess the authority, in a constitution and political culture founded upon democracy, of a democratic expression of the view of the Scottish electorate.”

Under current devolution law, legislation relating to the union between Scotland and the rest of the UK is reserved for Westminster. Legal representatives of the UK government, had said the proposed plebiscite would not just be an opinion poll but part of a political strategy that sought the end of the 1707 union between Scotland and England.

Less than a decade after the first vote, the issue has regained momentum following the successful referendum to leave the European Union, where pro-EU voters in Scotland outnumbered the pro-Brexit population by more than 640,000 votes.


A majority of Scots – 62 per cent – wanted to remain despite the collective result throughout the UK in favour of leaving. The 2014 referendum only occurred after then prime minister David Cameron gave the Scottish government legal authority to hold it. His successors, including Theresa May and Boris Johnson refused to do likewise, arguing that not enough time has passed since the last vote.


The SNP, which governs in Edinburgh in a power-sharing agreement with the pro-independence Scottish Greens, has said the parties’ victory in the Scottish elections in 2021 gives them a mandate to hold another referendum.

Opinion polls have consistently shown that Scots are split over whether to leave the UK.

Sturgeon said the party would not abandon the independence route that “Westminster is blocking”, claiming the Scottish government would find a new way to hold a referendum.

“In my view, that can only be an election,” she said. “The next national election scheduled for Scotland is, of course, the UK general election. Making that both the first and the most obvious opportunity to seek what I described as a ‘de facto’ referendum.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that the government respected the “clear and definitive” ruling and that now was the time for “politicians to work together”.

A spokesman for opposition leader, Sir Keir Starmer, ruled out Labour agreeing to hold another Scottish independence referendum in a deal to reach Downing Street after the next election.

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