Scotland cannot hold an independence referendum without UK government approval, top court rules

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Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks at a press conference to launch a second independence paper at Bute House on July 14, 2022 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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LONDON — The U.K.’s Supreme Court on Wednesday told the Scottish government it cannot hold a fresh independence referendum without the U.K. government’s consent.

Supreme Court President Lord Reed said in broadcast remarks that the Scottish Parliament did not have the power to legislate on matters reserved to the U.K. Parliament, including the union.

A referendum was held in September 2014 in which Scotland voted to remain in the U.K. by 55% to 45%.

The Scottish National Party, which backs independence, became a major political force when it won a majority in the Scottish Parliament in the 2011 election.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, who has served as Scotland’s first minister since November 2014, has said her party was elected on a “clear promise to give the people of Scotland the choice of independence.”

In a speech following the decision, Sturgeon said she was disappointed by the decision but respected and accepted it.

However, the debate over whether another referendum will be held is far from resolved, and the party will continue to push for Scottish independence and look for ways to hold another referendum, she made clear.

Sturgeon said: “The route we take must be lawful and democratic for independence to be achieved. And as is becoming clearer by the day, achieving independence is not just desirable, it is essential if Scotland is to escape the disaster of Brexit, the damage of policies imposed by governments we don’t vote for, and the low growth, high inequality economic model that is holding us back.”

“However, we must be clear today that the Supreme Court does not make the law — it interprets and applies it,” she continued.

She said the court had not commented on whether there was a democratic mandate for a referendum, which she called “undeniable.”

Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP in the House of Commons, said the government was “deny[ing] democracy to the people of Scotland” and to continue to block an election would mean the “very idea that the United Kingdom is a voluntary union of nations is now dead and buried.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak responded: “We respect the clear and definitive ruling of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.”

“I think the people of Scotland want us to be working on fixing the major challenges that we collectively face, whether that’s the economy, supporting the NHS, or indeed supporting Ukraine. Now is the time for politicians to work together, and that’s what this government will do.”

He also said the Scottish Parliament had strong devolved powers. 

Sturgeon in 2017 gained approval from the Scottish Parliament to hold another referendum after the terms of any Brexit deal became clear, but this was blocked by the then-U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.

The SNP currently holds 64 out of 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, with the remaining seats split between the Scottish Conservative & Unionist, Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat parties; and holds 44 of the 650 seats at the U.K. parliament in Westminster.

Since the Brexit vote in 2016, one of its core arguments has been that Scotland voted to remain in the European Union by 62% to 38%. Sturgeon has said her party would immediately seek to re-join the bloc with Scotland as an independent country, though questions remain over issues such as trade and freedom of movement, and whether joining the euro would be a criteria of membership.

Last month, the party published an economic prospectus arguing Scotland’s economy would be “stronger and fairer” after independence.

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