The Supreme Court of Great Britain has ruled that the Scottish government cannot stand unilaterally a second referendum over whether or not to secede from the United Kingdom, a blow to independence activists who will be welcomed by Westminster’s pro-union organization.
The court unanimously rejected an attempt by the Scottish National Party (SNP) to force a vote in October, as it lacked the approval of the UK Parliament.
But the decision is unlikely to come back the heated debate about the independence that has hung over British politics for ten years.
Scotland last held a vote on the issue, with Westminster’s approval, in 2014, when voters rejected the prospect of independence by 55% to 45%.
The pro-independence SNP has nevertheless dominated politics north of the border in the intervening years, to the detriment of traditional pro-union groups. Successive SNP leaders have pledged to give Scottish voters another chance to vote, especially since the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s latest effort involved holding a consultative referendum late next year, similar to the 2016 poll that resulted in Brexit. But the country’s highest court agreed that even a non-legally binding vote would require oversight from Westminster, given its practical implications.
“A lawfully held referendum would have important political implications for the Union and the Parliament of the United Kingdom,” Lord Reed said as he read out the court’s verdict.
“It would strengthen or weaken the democratic legitimacy of the Union and of the British Parliament’s sovereignty over Scotland, depending on the prevailing opinion, and it would support or undermine the democratic credentials of the independence movement,” he said.
Sturgeon said she accepted the ruling Wednesday, but tried to frame the decision as another pillar in the argument for secession. “A law not allowing Scotland to choose our own future without Westminster’s consent exposes any idea of the UK as a voluntary partnership as a myth and calls for independence,” she wrote on Twitter.
“Scottish democracy will not be denied,” she said. “Today’s ruling blocks one way for Scotland’s voice to be heard on independence – but in a democracy our voice cannot and will not be silenced.”
England and Scotland have been united in a political union since 1707, but many Scots have long struggled with 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 heavily – but unsuccessfully – against Brexit, intensifying debate on the issue over the past decade.
Since 1999, Scotland has had a devolved government, meaning that many, but not all, decisions are made in the SNP-led Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh.