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23 November 2022

Supreme Court rules Nicola Sturgeon cannot hold independence referendum

The judges concluded that Holyrood needs Westminster approval to legislate for a second Scottish independence vote.

By Zoë Grünewald

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Scottish Parliament cannot legally hold another independence referendum without the consent of Westminster.

The first Scottish independence referendum was held in September 2014, with 55 per cent voting against leaving the UK and 45 per cent in favour, and since then prime ministers have refused permission for a second. To hold a referendum the Scottish Parliament must get a Section 30 order from the UK government under the Scotland Act 1998, because matters of the Union and the UK Parliament are reserved to Westminster. In 2017 Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, was given approval by the Scottish Parliament to seek such an order but has not been granted one and had said that she would try to determine whether a referendum could be held unilaterally.

Dorothy Bain, the Lord Advocate, Scotland’s chief law officer, referred the question of whether Holyrood could legislate for the vote without prime ministerial approval to the Supreme Court. Her argument was that the proposed referendum bill would not automatically lead to independence, so would not in itself affect the Union.

Lord Reed, president of the Supreme Court, said that the judges’ unanimous ruling was that a referendum bill would have “important political consequences relating to the Union and the United Kingdom Parliament”. As such, the court concluded that the proposed bill does relate to reserved matters and that Holyrood does not have the power to legislate for a second independence referendum.

Sturgeon had said that should the court rule in her favour a second referendum would be held on 19 October, 2023. She has also said that if the court were to say no then the SNP would make independence the only issue in its next general election campaign – a vote for the SNP would be interpreted as an explicit vote for secession.

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[See also: The problem with late-period Nicola Sturgeon]

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