Britain’s highest court on Wednesday rejected a bid by the Scottish devolved government in Edinburgh to hold a new independence referendum without London’s consent.
The unanimous decision by the Supreme Court torpedoed the Scottish Nationalist government’s bid to hold a second referendum next year.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) had said that would turn the next general election into a de facto vote on splitting from the rest of the UK, threatening constitutional chaos.
First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said she respected the ruling but was “disappointed”.
If Scotland cannot “choose our own future without Westminster’s consent”, the idea of the UK as a voluntary partnership was exposed as a “myth”, she tweeted.
1/ Although I am disappointed by it, I respect the judgment of the @UKSupremeCourt – it does not make law, only interprets it. A law that does not allow Scotland to choose our own future without consent from Westminster exposes as myth any notion of Britain as a voluntary partnership and makes the case for Indy
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) November 23, 2022
The Supreme Court’s Scottish president, Robert Reed, said the power to call a referendum was “reserved” to the UK parliament under Scotland’s devolution deal.
Therefore, “the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence,” Reed said.
Sturgeon’s SNP-led government in Edinburgh wanted to hold a referendum next October on the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
The British government, which oversees constitutional affairs for the whole country, has repeatedly refused to give Edinburgh the power to hold a referendum.
It believes the last one – in 2014, when 55 per cent of Scots rejected independence – settled the issue for a generation.
But Sturgeon and her party say there is now an “indisputable mandate” for another referendum on independence, particularly in light of Britain’s exit from the EU.
Most voters in Scotland opposed Brexit.
Scotland not Kosovo
Scotland’s recent general election returned a majority of independent lawmakers for the first time.
At a hearing in Britain’s High Court last month, lawyers for the government in London argued that the Scottish government could not decide to hold a referendum on its own.
Permission had to be granted because the constitutional composition of the four nations of Great Britain was a reserved matter for the government in London.
Lawyers for the Scottish Government wanted a ruling on the rights of the devolved parliament in Edinburgh if London continued to block an independence referendum.
Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, Scotland’s top lawyer, said Scottish independence was a “vibrant and significant” issue in Scottish politics.
The Scottish Government sought to create its own legal framework for another referendum, arguing that “the right to self-determination is a fundamental and inalienable right”.
But the Supreme Court rejected international comparisons raised by the SNP, which had likened Scotland to Quebec or Kosovo.
Reed said that international law on self-determination only applied to former colonies, or where a people is oppressed by military occupation, or when a defined group is denied its political and civil rights.
None of that applied to Scotland, said the President of the Supreme Court.
He also rejected the SNP’s argument that a referendum would only be “advisory” and not legally binding.
Any such vote would have practical political consequences regardless of its legal status, the judge said.
Without the court’s approval, Sturgeon had promised to make the next general election in the UK, due in January 2025 at the latest, a campaign for independence.
Sturgeon’s SNP ran in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election on a promise to hold a legally valid referendum after the Covid crisis subsides.