The Supreme Court has spoken; the Scottish Government cannot hold a second independence referendum without the consent of the UK Government.
The judgement, handed down on Wednesday morning, concluded that any potential referendum would have concerned the “Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England”. As a result, the view of the court was that the right to hold an independence referendum lies with UK Government – not the Scottish Government.
Following a two-day hearing in October, the Scottish Government had hoped the Supreme Court would rule that they would be able to hold an advisory referendum. Essentially what that would mean is that we would have a referendum, similar to the one in 2014, but that a result in favour of independence would not automatically trigger any movement in that direction.
Rather, the UK Government would still have to agree to Scotland becoming independent. They would then have to enter into negotiations with the Scottish Government about what the future would look like with Scotland out of the union.
If that had happened, the pro-independence side hoped that it would become an untenable position for whoever is Prime Minister at the time to deny Scotland its independence, if over half the country had voted for it in a referendum.
The UK Government argued in the hearing that powers relating to the union were reserved to Westminster, meaning the Holyrood parliament cannot legislate in these areas. That is a position that the court has now accepted.
What comes next?
So, what happens next? The honest answer is no one really knows.
On Wednesday afternoon, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that the SNP, her party, would launch a campaign in “defence of Scottish democracy”. The SNP is to hold a “special conference” in the new year to decide the best way forward.
It is likely the SNP will seek to treat the next general election as a “de-facto referendum”. This means they will campaign squarely on the issue of independence, and if they receive more than fifty per cent of the votes cast as Scotland then they will take this as a mandate for independence.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak welcomed the announcement, and said that the Scottish Government should now focus on working with his government on issues such as healthcare, the economy, the cost of living crisis, or the war in Ukraine.
On Wednesday night, independence supporters held a number of rallies responding to the Supreme Court’s decision. These took place in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow and in a number of other towns and cities across Scotland. I went to the one in Edinburgh to see what was happening.
Disappointed, but not necessarily surprised
Speaking to independence supporters in Edinburgh, the general feeling was clear; people were disappointed but not surprised. I spoke to a dozen or so independence supporters, and not one of them told me that this verdict came as a shock to them.
It’s interesting because this epithet is, perhaps, the one single point that people on both sides seemed to agree on – it appeared most people had just accepted that this would be the likely verdict. However, their reactions to this non-surprise could not have been more different.
Not a surprise, but not a setback either
Speaking to independence supporters, the mood at the rally was defiant. They all recognised Wednesday’s news as a disappointment to them, but most also took the view that it also provided an opportunity for the “Yes” side to regroup and advance its push for independence.
I spoke to someone called Denise; she told me she hopes that Wednesday’s decision will “spur the Yes movement into action”.
In a similar vein, someone else told me that Wednesday’s decision will only “bring us all [the Yes movement] together” and encourage the side to be more “resolute”.
Aileen is disappointed by Wednesday’s news, but she’s not necessarily based by it – she sees the Supreme Court case as only a “stepping stone on the route to independence”.
They all agree; this is not over. The quest for Scotland’s independence goes on.
Angus says “we’ve got to find other ways to get independence if we want it”.
But not everyone agrees
The thing is, of course, not everyone does want independence. The pro-UK group “A Force for Good” held a counter protest across the road. I went to speak to them. And even though all I did was cross the road, it felt as though I’d went from one world to another.
For them, this has to be the end of the matter.
Like the “Yes” side across the road, their group agrees on much. Primarily, they believe that the Scottish Government should focus on issues other than independence.
Christine tells me that “the country is in crisis at the moment, and there’s a lot more important things than independence”. Independence supporters, perhaps, view independence as one of, if not the, most pressing issue to be discussed. The people I spoke to on the “No” side disagreed.
Another person, Ian, worries that another independence referendum risks sidetracking the Government and the public from other issues. Issues such as homelessness, drug deaths or the suicide rate.
Alistair, the Director of A Force for Good, worries that continuing debate on independence risks inflating divisions in Scotland. He expects to see “a lot more aggressive language from them [independence supporters]”. In so doing, he references comments made by independence supporters implying Scotland is a colony of the United Kingdom.
He says language like this is “dangerous”, and he worries that if it continues through, what will presumably be, a drawn-out debate on Scotland’s constitutional failure then some form of unrest may follow.
Whatever your view, however, it is clear that this debate is not done yet.
Feature image credit: Dec Magee