Britain’s Supreme Court has ruled that the Scottish government cannot unilaterally hold a second referendum on whether to break away from the United Kingdom, in a blow to independence campaigners that will be welcomed by Westminster’s pro-union establishment.
The court unanimously rejected an attempt by the Scottish National Party (SNP) to force a vote next October as it did not have the approval of the British parliament.
But the decision is unlikely to quell the heated debate over independence that has dogged British politics for a decade.
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, however, has dominated politics north of the border in recent years, at the expense of the traditional, trade unionist 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.
The latest push by SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was for an advisory referendum to be held at the end of next year, similar to the 2016 poll that led to Brexit. But the country’s top 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 consequences in relation to the Union and the UK Parliament,” Lord Reed said as he read out the court’s ruling.
“It would strengthen or weaken the democratic legitimacy of the Union and the UK Parliament’s sovereignty over Scotland, depending on which view prevailed, and would support or undermine the democratic credentials of the independence movement,” he said.
Sturgeon said she accepted the ruling on Wednesday, but tried to frame the decision as another pillar in the argument for secession. “A law that does not allow Scotland to choose our own future without the consent of Westminster exposes as a myth any notion of the UK as a voluntary association and makes (a) case” for independence, he wrote on Twitter.
“Scottish democracy will not be denied,” he said. “Today’s ruling blocks an avenue 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 grown frustrated with what they see as a one-sided relationship dominated by England. Historically, Scottish voters have rejected Conservative Party government at the polls and voted strongly, but in vain, against Brexit, intensifying arguments over 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.