In news surprising nobody this week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s bid for IndyRef2 was thrown out by the Supreme Court, leaving the future of Scotland’s independence firmly in the hands of Westminster. Lord Reed’s statement confirmed that the Scottish Parliament has no power to make decisions on matters that are reserved for Westminster, meaning that as things stand, there’s no way out for Scotland, and no way back to joining the EU.
While obviously disappointed by the news, Sturgeon’s reaction on Wednesday was careful and measured to begin with, conveying that she accepted the judgement and respected the court’s interpretation of the law. However, her attention then turned to the premise of the law itself.
The problem with this ruling, she said, was that the very notion of the UK being a voluntary partnership of nations is undermined by this law. She said that a partnership where ‘one partner is denied the right to choose a different future, or even to ask itself the question cannot be described in any way as voluntary or even partnership at all’. She went on to throw around the D-word, claiming that the independence movement is no longer just about escaping the clutches of Westminster, but is now about democracy itself.
This accusation of an inherently unfair set up in Westminster plays into the sentiment held by the SNP voter base. Despite the fact that 2014’s vote was billed as a once in a generation event, the SNP’s push for independence has not gone away quietly, with the majority of MSPs still backing an independent Scotland. With Brexit adding fuel to the fire and rolling bouts of instability in the halls of Westminster, the appetite for both economic and political independence is still very much at the forefront of Scottish political life. Sturgeon shows no signs of backing down on this issue while she believes that she has the mandate to fight for a new vote in a new political climate.
However, with the ruling as clear as it was, she’s left with limited options to make this happen. Sunak has already made it clear that he wouldn’t endorse another referendum under this government. And Starmer has ruled out any potential coalition deal at the next election to secure the referendum too. Sturgeon’s favoured course of action for the moment seems to be what she’s terming a ‘de facto referendum’ – turning the next general election into a one-policy race and hoping for a landslide to cement the mandate for independence and using that as negotiating power at the Westminster table.
A result of 50% or more of the popular vote is a feat that hasn’t been achieved in Scotland since the Conservatives in 1955. Although Labour has work to do to claw back seats from the SNP, Sturgeon making independence her hill to die on could create an opening for those who want to move on from this conversation and see Labour gain some ground.
It’s a risky play for Sturgeon politically. If her whole career is fuelled by the issue of independence, it could be argued that after a failed referendum from her party, and a failed second attempt at one concluding this week, her role in delivering on that mandate is on thin ice. But with all other options exhausted, and her democracy rhetoric ramping up the stakes, it’s hard to see another way out.