Scottish independence: What happens now Scotland has lost its legal case for a second referendum?

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By Joshua Askew
SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon
SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

The UK Supreme Court has ruled that Scotland's parliament can't organise its own independence referendum.

Wednesday's decision was unanimous. It confirmed that the Scottish government didn't have the legal authority to introduce legislation that would allow a new vote without Westminister's permission -- something successive governments in London have refused to give. 

Despite Wednesday's ruling, the issue of Scottish independence is not going away. 

The number of Scots is split evenly between those who want to stay part of the United Kingdom, and those who want out.   

So what happens next? Predicting the future in politics is notoriously difficult, but there are three main scenarios that could play out in Scotland.

1. The Scottish National Party could bide their time

The SNP could wait until the next UK national election scheduled for 2025, hoping that they will secure an increased majority, strengthening their case for independence.

“We want this to be beyond doubt,” said Ruaridh Hanna, an SNP activist. 

“We need to convince more people [that] independence is the best way forward," he told Euronews. 

If the SNP were to return an even bigger vote in 2025, Hanna believes this would bolster the case for a second referendum and put pressure on Westminster to allow one, both at home and internationally.

While recognising it was still too early to tell, he hoped that the “clear democratic deficit” shown by the British government in not permitting the vote would boost support for independence.

“A lot of people around Scotland today, who were sitting on the fence before, will be listening to the evening news tonight and thinking, how is this right?

“This cannot be a voluntary union if there was no way out,” he added, suggesting it becomes something “rather sinister” if Scotland is “held hostage” within the UK.

Still, many have argued that this strategy could backfire.

If the SNP continues to focus on securing a second referendum, which seems unlikely for now, there is a risk Scots could grow frustrated at a seemingly unnecessary distraction from other issues, especially during the midst of recession and a cost of living crisis.

In a statement, the Scottish Conservatives 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,” said party leader Douglas Ross. “Our economy and our NHS are in crisis.”

Plus there is every chance the 2025 election will not dramatically improve the fortunes of the SNP, setting the party up for a rerun of what has happened before.

Karlo Basta, who co-directs Edinburgh University’s Centre on Constitutional Change, said he was “sceptical” that support for independence would rise as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision.

“We don't have a crystal ball … right now it's open-ended. But if I had to bet, I would guess that it's not going to really change things substantially,” he said. “But again, I may be wrong.”

2. The Scottish National Party could quietly park independence

A second plausible scenario is that the issue of independence could be put to bed by the SNP, at least temporarily.

“Of course, there's a reasonably high support for independence in the opinion polls,” said Basta.“Yet the longer the SNP continues pushing for independence without any tangible results, the more pressure there will probably be on it to do something different.”

He suggested the Scottish nationalists faced “very difficult choices” over the next few years.

They could “pivot away” from independence in the medium term –- something he said was not “particularly appealing” for the party membership –- or continue to engage in "political manoeuvers" that do not end up with independence, and risk losing electoral support. 

They may end up “parking independence and dedicating themselves to perhaps deepening or extending devolution,” he said. "But this will be difficult to do due to internal party opposition".

Again there is doubt this will happen.

David Cheskin/AP
A Scottish Saltire flag hangs in the window of an apartment near the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland, Friday, Aug, 21, 2020.David Cheskin/AP

“As long as the SNP is a political party, and Scotland remains in the Union, the SNP will campaign for independence,” said Ruaridh Hanna.

He continued: Independence “is clearly important to the electorate in Scotland … the SNP would be doing a disservice to the electorate to ignore the wishes of the people.”

The SNP have won eight elections in a row since the first independence referendum in 2014. The party, together with the Scottish Greens, hold the largest pro-independence majority that there has ever been in Holyrood.

Still, faced with the current impasse, Hanna said the SNP needed to “explore other options.”

“There'll be a conference with party members in the new year to look at exactly how that takes place and what shape that takes.”

“There are a lot of questions that need to be ironed out over the next few months,” he added. “We don't have the answers right now”.

3. Carry on regardless

Some have argued that the SNP should go ahead and carry out the referendum, without the approval of Westminster.

In 2017, Catalonia held a referendum on splitting with Spain that the country’s government had declared illegal. Supporters of independence won by 90%, though large numbers of no voters did not turn up.

However, the SNP and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have repeatedly, firmly, ruled this out. 

Speaking after the verdict, Sturgeon said her party would respect the Supreme Court's decision.

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

One reason behind the SNP's desire to go down the legal route, explained Basta, was that it wants “international recognition”.

“Besides, they are fully aware that if they were to go ahead and try to stage some sort of unilateral bid at independence … they would be perceived as irresponsible".

“It would be politically unpalatable,” he added.

Many international observers of the Catalan vote ruled that it was illegitimate because it had not been sanctioned by the central government and failed to meet certain electoral standards.

Whatever the case, Hanna said the verdict should be pause for thought for all.

“To those who do not live in Scotland, they should be asking themselves what does this mean for democracy in general.”

“If the UK Government is seriously going down the path of denying democracy within its own borders. What international ramifications does that carry? Does that set precedents for other countries,” he added.