LONDON — The U.K. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the Scottish government cannot hold an independence referendum without Westminster’s permission — dealing a blow to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts to earn the sovereignty her Scottish National Party craves.
Reading out the widely anticipated judgment Wednesday morning, Robert Reed, the court president, said the “Scottish parliament does not have the power to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence.”
As part of her Scottish government’s latest push for separation from the U.K., Sturgeon sought a ruling from the U.K.’s top court on whether the Scottish parliament, based at Holyrood in Edinburgh, has the power to organize a second referendum without the consent of the U.K. government.
Her government believes it has a mandate for a new vote after pro-independence parties, including the SNP, won a majority of seats in 2021’s Scottish election.
The first referendum, which the the pro-independence side lost 55-45 in 2014, followed then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to temporarily hand Holyrood the power to hold the vote.
A succession of British Tory prime ministers, including incumbent Rishi Sunak, have made clear there will be no repeat this time, pointing to the message from senior pro-independence figures, including Sturgeon, in 2014 that the referendum would be a “once in a generation” or “once in a lifetime” event.
The Supreme Court’s ruling — an outcome she and her top team were prepared for — thwarts Sturgeon’s strategy of trying to organize a poll anyway.
But when she announced the plan in the summer to take the fight for Scottish independence to court, Sturgeon set out her “Plan B” in the event the court ruled against the Scottish government.
Sturgeon said that if a “lawful, constitutional referendum” is not possible, the next U.K. general election — expected in 2024 — would become a “de-facto referendum” on independence. The expectation is that this would see the SNP campaign on the single issue of independence and treat a victory of more than 50 percent of the vote in Scottish seats as it would a “Yes” vote in a referendum.
The plan remains underdeveloped and Scottish government figures have been cagey about how it would work in practice. Some nationalists doubt the usually cautious Sturgeon would follow through with a risky strategy that would require her party’s best-ever election result.
In the meantime, her SNP hopes to use the court reversal to pile pressure on the U.K. government and to drive support for independence, which is currently neck and neck in opinion polls.
Sturgeon said that while she is “disappointed” by the ruling, she respects the court’s judgment.
“A law that doesn’t allow Scotland to choose our own future without Westminster consent exposes as myth any notion of the U.K. as a voluntary partnership & makes case for Indy,” she added on Twitter.