LONDON – Scotland’s first minister on Tuesday announced plans for a referendum next year on Scottish independence, reopening the battle for her country’s future and challenging Britain’s top judges to stop her from keeping it.
The announcement by the Prime Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, sets the stage for a high-stakes legal and political battle over the fate of Scotland, and poses another problem for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he tries to maintain his grip on power. after a series of scandals and political reversals.
“Now is the time – at this critical moment in history – to debate and decide the future of our country,” Ms Sturgeon told members of the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday. She proposed October 19, 2023 as the date for the second independence vote in a decade — something Mr Johnson has ruled out.
Ms Sturgeon’s statement ends a lull in the Scottish independence campaign, which has faded into the background during the pandemic, and puts the issue back at the top of her agenda. Now, said Mrs Sturgeon in Edinburgh, it was time to ‘let the people decide’.
But before Scottish voters have a chance to make a choice, the first decision will in fact be up to the judges. Most legal experts believe that to be legal, permission for a referendum must be granted by Mr Johnson, who has stood firm in his opposition.
That claim will now be tested in Britain’s Supreme Court after Scotland’s top lawmaker, the Lord Advocate, voted on Tuesday to question whether the Scottish Parliament has the power to legislate itself for an advisory referendum on independence.
While en route to a NATO summit in Madrid, Mr Johnson said he would study the proposal, but added: “I definitely believe that together we will have a stronger economy and a stronger country.”
In Edinburgh, Douglas Ross, who leads Mr Johnson’s Conservatives in Scotland, said Ms Sturgeon said her “plans to bring Scotland to the forefront” while putting the country’s real priorities on the back burner.
Despite the rhetorical exchanges, it remained far from clear that Scots – who voted against independence in a 2014 referendum – would have a chance to decide again soon.
James Mitchell, a public policy professor at the University of Edinburgh, described Tuesday’s announcement as a political maneuver and said the prospects for a referendum to take place next year were “tiny to say the least”.
However, Mrs. Sturgeon can still profit politically, even if the Supreme Court contradicts her plan. In that scenario, she hopes to increase public support for independence by portraying the decision as London’s denial of Scotland’s right to self-determination, Professor Mitchell said.
“If the Supreme Court says, ‘No, you can’t hold a referendum,’ it will say, ‘That’s an argument for independence,'” he said. He added that in the medium term, the likely outcome would be a stalemate and protracted “trench war” over independence.
Ms Sturgeon needs her referendum to be legal as she wants Scotland to rejoin the European Union, which would not accept a country whose vote for independence was not legally watertight.
If she loses in the Supreme Court, Ms Sturgeon said she would try to make the next general election a ‘de facto’ referendum, to increase political pressure on London to cast a vote.
Opponents of independence argue that during the divisive referendum on independence in 2014, both parties accepted that the contest was a once-in-a-generation choice. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, had agreed to that plebiscite, which was also technically advisory.
But Ms Sturgeon’s supporters point to material changes since then that warrant a second vote.
The biggest of these was Brexit, which went ahead despite a clear vote in Scotland in a 2019 referendum to remain in the European Union. Outnumbered by pro-Brexit voters in England and Wales, the Scots found themselves severing close economic ties with continental Europe when Mr Johnson opted for a clear break with the European Union and signed a minimalist trade deal with the bloc .
With his top-notch English mannerisms, Mr Johnson is an unpopular figure in Scotland, so much so that four of the six Scottish lawmakers representing his Conservative Party in the UK Parliament said they had voted for him in a recent no-confidence vote. to resign. †
Mr Johnson narrowly survived that challenge to his authority, albeit with more than 40 per cent of his own MPs seeking to impeach him over a scandal over lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street. Last week, he suffered two major electoral defeats in contests for vacant parliamentary seats, including one of the biggest vote disruptions in recent times.
But while Mr Johnson’s persona, behavior and policies may have bolstered the political argument among Scots for independence, Brexit has made economic ones more difficult. If a newly independent Scotland joined the European Union, it would have a customs and trade land border with England, its largest trading partner – potentially creating a kaleidoscopic array of problems for both countries and the European Union, as illustrated by the current disputes between Great Britain and the Block Above Northern Ireland.
Opinion polls suggest that these and other issues have left the Scottish population fairly evenly divided on the merits of independence.
Nevertheless, Ms Sturgeon, who is under pressure from some of her activists to act more quickly, seems to have decided there is little point in delaying and that, if allowed, a pro-independence referendum campaign could be won next year.
“I think there was an opportunity that opened up immediately after the Brexit referendum, but that opportunity is closing,” said Professor Mitchell.
Ms. Sturgeon “calculated that if she doesn’t go now she may not get another chance,” he said, adding: “She’s rolled the dice but she doesn’t have much of a choice, she doesn’t have a strong hand when it comes to holding a referendum.”