A panel of judges sitting on the highest court in the United Kindgom has ruled that Scotland has no legal right to call a referendum on its future position within that very kingdom, will reverberate in the coming months, widening the already deep rift between those living north of the border and setting Westminster and Edinburgh.
This is a red circle day — a moment when the very nature of the Act of Union that ties together the nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, has been adjudged to be one between ordinates and subordinates.
There is no written Constitution in the UK; instead it is held together by conventions that have become enshrined over the centuries. There are threads of legislation such as the Act of Union, that set out the arrangement of the relationship between those four nations.
Implications of Supreme Court ruling
So too devolution, which gave Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland powers to resolve a limited set of matters. But on the future of the UK itself, those three nations have no say — and that in essence is the meat of Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling.
But while the gavel may have fallen on the question put to the judges, the case for Scotland’s independence is far from concluded.
No. Now First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will take her case, once more, to the jury of the 5.5 million or so who live north of Hadrian’s Wall.
If Wednesday was a red letter day, then so too will the next general election day in the UK. The clock is very surely ticking down to that unknown date within the next two years, when Sturgeon says Scots will go to the polls in effectively what will be a referendum on their nation’s place in the UK.
While the court has agreed with the UK Government that the Scottish Parliament does not have the legislative competence to pass a Bill enabling a referendum to take place, the Scottish National Party are now more fired up and determined than ever to reverse that Act of Union that brought Scotland into the UK 215 years ago in 1707.
Power to hold referendum
The power to hold a referendum currently sits with the UK Parliament in London. The key issue was that it isn’t clear — that absence of a written Constitution hasn’t helped — and was the crux of the case before the Supreme Court: Would it be possible for legislation to be introduced at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh that would allow a referendum to be held.
There was consent between the UK and Scottish governments back in 2012 over the terms of a vote. Then then-prime minister David Cameron and then-first minister Alex Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement that year which paved the way for the referendum to take place two years later.
However, this time around, there isn’t any appetite from the divided Conservatives for a second referendum to be held. The view of successive prime ministers has been that the 2014 vote was a “once-in-a-generation” event and that not enough time has passed since then.
Sturgeon has consistently made the case that people in Scotland should be able to decide what future they want, with Brexit having been cited on a number of occasions as the material change in circumstances that means another referendum should take place.
Power of Scottish parliament
Supreme Court president Lord Reed said on Wednesday: “The Scottish parliament does not have the power to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence.”
It means the Scottish Government’s top law officer, the Lord Advocate, will not be able to clear the Bill for passage through the Scottish Parliament.
No sooner had the verdict been read that Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, was on his feet, saying that the idea the UK as a voluntary union of nations is now dead and buried.
“The Prime Minister has every right to oppose independence,” Blackford charged at Rishi Sunak. “He has no right to deny democracy to the people of Scotland.”
For a PM who is barely three weeks in office, is facing a divided party and an economically pained populace, the last thing he needs is a fight with the Scottish nationalists.
“Now is the time for politicians to work together and that’s what we will do.”
Yes, but for how long?
Labour, for its part, does not support another referendum on Scottish independence. That tune might very well change if after that next general election, it depends on SNP support to govern.
Sturgeon has previously set out plans to hold a consultative referendum on 19 October next year. After Wednesday’s ruling, she insisted that “Scottish democracy will not be denied.”
“While disappointed by it I respect the ruling of [the court] — it doesn’t make law, it only interprets it. And she added that a law that doesn’t allow Scotland to choose its own future without Westminster consent exposes as myth any notion of the UK as a voluntary partnership.
And that, she said, makes the case for independence even stronger.
“Scottish democracy will not be denied,” she said. “[The] ruling blocks one route to Scotland’s voice being heard on independence — but in a democracy our voice cannot and will not be silenced.”
Over the coming months, there will be little silence from those pushing for independence — and will be closely watched by nationalists in Wales and Northern Ireland.
In Wales, Plaid Cymru is a tacit junior partner in the Labour Government in Cardiff.
In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein are the largest party in the Assembly that is in suspended animation because of Brexit. Soon, that party might be in power in the Republic of Ireland too.
Wednesday’s ruling will have deep and lasting consequences indeed.