The UK Supreme Court has ruled that the Scottish government does not have the legal authority to hold an independence referendum without agreement from Downing Street, scuppering plan to hold a vote next year.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, in June told the parliament in Edinburgh that she wanted to hold a plebiscite in October 2023. Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, Scotland’s most senior legal officer, referred the draft bill to the Supreme Court because she did not have the “necessary degree of confidence” that the devolved parliament had the authority to legislate for the vote.
The ruling ends a legal route for Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National party, to hold a rerun of the 2014 referendum in which Scots voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent in favour of maintaining their union with England.
The last referendum was made possible after then prime minister David Cameron gave the Scottish government legal authority to hold it. His successors have refused to do the same, arguing that not enough time had passed since the last vote.
Lord Robert Reed, president of the Supreme Court, on Wednesday said the five justices had agreed that the proposed legislation related to reserved matters, rejecting an argument by the Lord Advocate that its “advisory” nature meant it was not related to the union, which is reserved to the government in London.
Sir James Eadie, representing the UK government, branded the argument as “strange” because the proposed plebiscite would not just be an opinion poll but part of a political strategy that sought the end of the union between Scotland and England.
Reed said the justices had decided that the definition of “reserved matters” was not limited to its legal effects but also included practical consequences.
“A lawfully held referendum would have important political consequences relating to the union and the UK parliament,” Reed said. “Its outcome would possess the authority, in a constitution and political culture founded upon democracy, of a democratic expression of the view of the Scottish electorate.”
Sturgeon previously said that she would use the next UK general election as a “de facto” referendum if the Supreme Court ruled Scotland did not have authority to hold an independence vote without approval from London.
She said that the ruling blocked one route to a referendum and that “Scottish democracy will not be denied”.
The SNP governs in Edinburgh in a power-sharing agreement with the pro-independence Greens, and has said that victory in the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021 gives it a mandate to hold another referendum.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that Scots are split on whether to break away from the UK.