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Scottish independence: Scotland ‘doesn't have power’ to hold fresh referendum, says UK Supreme Court

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By Euronews
A young pro-independence protester holds a Saltire (Scottish flag) during a March against Boris Johnson in Glasgow on January 22, 2022
A young pro-independence protester holds a Saltire (Scottish flag) during a March against Boris Johnson in Glasgow on January 22, 2022   -   Copyright  Credit: AFP

The UK Supreme Court has ruled that Scotland's parliament does not have the legal authority to hold a referendum on independence next year.

The ruling was handed down on Wednesday morning, following a case brought by the Scottish government and Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish National Party (SNP) in October. 

First Minister Sturgeonsaid she was disappointed by the ruling, but would respect the result.

“In securing Scotland's independence, we will always be guided by a commitment to democracy and respect for the rule of law,” she said, adding they were “important” principles.

“As is becoming clearer by the day, achieving independence is not now just desirable, it is essential if Scotland is to escape the disaster of Brexit, damage of policies imposed by governments we do not vote for, and the low growth high inequality economic model that is holding us back."

Sturgeon added the judgement raised “profound and deeply uncomfortable questions about the basis and future of the UK”, adding it had “shattered” understandings that the union was voluntary.

The British government said Edinburgh must now "concentrate (...) on the issues that matter most" for the Scots after the court refused to allow a new independence referendum.

"We take note of and respect the unanimous verdict of the Supreme Court today," Scotland Minister Alister Jack said in a statement. 

"People in Scotland want their governments (in Edinburgh and London) to focus [...] on the issues that matter most to them."

The Scottish Conservatives echoed the British government.  

Party leader Douglas Ross said the "clear and unequivocal" verdict must now be respected by the SNP.

He called on the SNP to "drop their referendum obsession and focus on what really matters to the people of Scotland." 

“The country faces enormous challenges right now. Our economy and our NHS are in crisis. We have a wave of public-sector strikes – including the first teachers’ strike in almost four decades," he said. 

"These key issues must be everyone’s top priority."

Watch the moment the UK Supreme Court made its ruling on whether Scotland could hold another independence vote

What's the background?

Britain's top court was hearing whether Scotland’s semi-autonomous administration can organise an independence vote without the London government’s consent.

Sturgeon planned to hold a new independence referendum in October next year, but the UK government had been adamant it wouldn't happen, saying the 2014 referendum -- which was won by the "no" campaign with 55% of the vote to 44% in favour of independence -- was a "once in a generation event".

Since then the numbers have tightened and Scots are evenly split on independence, although they have consistently returned pro-independence politicians to parliaments in Westminster and Edinburgh over the last eight years, with the SNP winning every national vote since then. 

The Scottish Parliament currently has a majority of MSPs who are pro-independence from Sturgeon's Scottish National Party and the Greens.

Sturgeon and the SNP argue that Britain’s departure from the European Union and the coronavirus pandemic have upended politics and the economy and that it’s time to revisit the case for independence.

How did the court case unfold?

Five judges on the UK's Supreme Court in London heard arguments in this case over the course of several days in October. 

The British government's position was that only Westminster could give the green light to any new independence referendum because constitutional issues remain the purview of the London government and are not devolved to Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, the Scottish government's lawyers argued that the proposed referendum -- like the 2016 Brexit referendum -- would only be advisory and would not in itself mean Scotland becomes independent, as there would need to be negotiations and new laws passed before that could actually happen. 

So what happens now?

Pro-independence activists have organised rallies in 14 Scottish towns and cities on Wednesday evening, and in five locations across Europe -- in Brussels, Paris, Rome, Berlin and Munich -- events that were planned to go ahead no matter the outcome of the Supreme Court ruling. 

"Supporters of a second independence referendum will be on the streets across the country after the Supreme Court’s verdict," said Lesley Riddoch, from the Time for Scotland campaign which is organising the rallies.

"Their decision impacts hugely on plans for a second referendum, and the desire amongst 50% of Scots for another say on our future must be visible and impactful at this critical moment," she added. 

Nicola Sturgeon has previously said if the Supreme Court did not rule in the Scottish Government's favour then the next UK general election would become a de facto vote on independence, and her party would campaign on that sole issue.