The Scottish Parliament does not have the power to call a second independence referendum in the country, the Supreme Court has said.
The unanimous ruling from the UK’s top judges said, despite demands from the SNP for a fresh vote, the country’s government would need approval from the government in Westminster before going ahead.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had proposed a second referendum – dubbed Indyref2 – for 19 October 2023.
Politics live: ‘Disappointed’ Sturgeon responds to Supreme Court ruling
But she had also warned she would use the next general election as an informal referendum if the court ruled against her plan.
Speaking from Edinburgh in the hours after the ruling, Ms Sturgeon said she accepted the judgement, and the issue was not with judges interpreting it, but the law itself.
“Until now it has been understood by opponents of independence, as well as by its supporters, that the UK is a voluntary partnership of nations,” she said.
“[But] let us be blunt. A so-called partnership in which one partner is denied the right to choose a different future, or even to ask itself question cannot be described in any way as voluntary or even partnership at all.
“So this ruling confirms that the notion of the UK, a voluntary partnership of nations, if it ever was a reality, is no longer a reality, and that it exposes a situation that is quite simply unsustainable.”
The first minister said the option “remains open” to the UK government to “accept democracy and reach an agreement” over how to hold a second referendum.
But if not, she pledged “not to give up on democracy” and use the next general election to ask the question, with a special party conference in the new year to agree the detail.
“This is no longer just about whether or not Scotland becomes independent, vital though that decision is,” said Ms Sturgeon. It is more fundamental.
“It is now about whether or not we even have the basic democratic right to choose own future. Indeed, from today, the independence movement is as much democracy as it is about independence.”
However, Speaking in the Commons, Scotland Secretary Alister Jack said the government welcomed the ruling, and called on the Scottish government “to set aside these divisive constitutional issues so that we can work together, focusing all of our attention and resources on the key issues that matter the people of Scotland”.
He added: “When we work together as one United Kingdom, we are safer, stronger and more prosperous.”
Scotland held an independence referendum in 2014 and just over 55% voted to remain part of the UK.
But the pro-independence SNP, which has led the country since 2007, believes it has a mandate to hold a fresh vote because of its continued success in elections – the majority of members in the Scottish Parliament back independence – and because of the change in circumstances since Brexit.
Ms Sturgeon began her attempts to get approval for a new referendum in 2017 by asking then-prime minister Theresa May for a Section 30 order, which is used to increase or restrict, permanently or temporarily, the Scottish Parliament’s legislative authority – and was used to temporarily legislate for the first referendum.
But she and subsequent UK PMs have refused, leading to today’s court case on whether the Scottish Parliament could pass a bill to hold a referendum without the nod from Westminster.
Announcing the ruling, the court’s president, Lord Reed, said legislation for a second vote would relate to “reserved matters”, making it outside the powers of Holyrood.
“A lawfully-held referendum would have important political consequences in relation to the Union and the United Kingdom Parliament,” he said.
“It would either strengthen or weaken the democratic legitimacy of the Union and of the United Kingdom Parliament’s sovereignty over Scotland, depending on which view prevailed, and would either support or undermine the democratic credentials of the independence movement.
“It is therefore clear that the proposed bill has more than a loose or consequential connection with the reserved matters of the Union of Scotland and England, and the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament.”
This is a blow for Sturgeon – Analysis by Connor Gillies, Scotland correspondent
This is a major blow for Nicola Sturgeon’s ambition to hold a second independence vote next October. It almost certainly rules out that plan.
But it’s not entirely surprising as the First Minister’s own top law officer wasn’t fully convinced of the legal basis for Holyrood legislating for a referendum against Westminster’s approval. That is why the Supreme Court got involved.
Indy campaigners will not be deflated at this ruling.
They are likely to see this as a stumbling block as they now pivot to Plan B which is using the next General Election as a defacto independence vote.
This will mean more rough and tumble of political back and forward. Opposition politicians will boycott.
Lord Reed also said the panel of judges did not accept the SNP’s argument about the “right to self-determination” in international law.
The party had cited rulings in the Canadian Supreme Court and the International Court of Justice – namely over Quebec’s own independence referendums in 1980 and 1995.
But the leading justice said such an international law only exists in situations “of former colonies, or where a people is oppressed… or where a definable group is denied meaningful access to government”.
“The court found that Quebec did not meet the threshold of a colonial people or an oppressed people, nor could it be suggested that Quebecers were denied meaningful access to government to pursue their political, economic, cultural and social development,” he said.
“The same is true of Scotland and the people of Scotland.”
‘Scotland will be independent’
SNP MPs took to social media to express the upset at the decision, with Dave Doogan tweeting: “In the eyes of the people of Scotland, there is NOTHING settled about the current constitutional arrangement.
“The people will decide, and Scotland will become independent.”
But Scottish Labour leader Anas Sawar said: “We must now focus on the problems facing our country, from rising bills to the crisis in our NHS.”
The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, said: “The SNP must now get back to work, drop their referendum obsession and focus on what really matters to the people of Scotland.”
And ex-PM Mrs May attacked the SNP at Prime Minister’s Questions, saying: “Scotland is a proud nation with a unique heritage. It is a valued member of our family of nations, a union of people bound through generations by shared interests.
“This morning’s Supreme Court decision gives the Scottish Nationalists, the SNP, the opportunity for once to put the people of Scotland first and its obsession with breaking us apart.”