Seven years after Scots voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom, the question of independence is front and center once again.
Independence isn’t on the ballot at this week’s Scottish Parliament election — but it’s the issue at the forefront of voters’ minds.
Elect a majority of pro-independence candidates on May 6, and they’ll be saying yes to “indyref2” — a second referendum on leaving the United Kingdom. Deny the nationalists parliamentary control, however, and dreams of sovereignty slip away (for now).
Polling suggests the latter is unlikely, with Nicola Sturgeon’s governing Scottish National Party (SNP) on course to win a plurality of seats. Should that come to pass, the party will waste no time in proclaiming a mandate for a fresh referendum.
“Scotland faces a choice of two futures. The long-term damage of Brexit and Tory cuts under the broken Westminster system, or the opportunity to secure our place in Europe and a strong, fair and green recovery as an independent country in a post-pandemic referendum,” said Kirsten Oswald, the SNP’s deputy leader in the UK Parliament.
Securing a second vote on secession is easier said than done, though. Before a legally watertight ballot can be sanctioned, the Scottish government must request a so-called Section 30 order from London, the legal apparatus that authorized Scotland’s 2014 referendum.
This, in Sturgeon’s mind, is the “gold standard” for securing indyref2 — but Boris Johnson isn’t so keen. Though UK-wide public opinion looks to be shifting on the question of a second vote, the British prime minister has repeatedly rejected calls for a rerun referendum, arguing that a full generation must first elapse.
Could Sturgeon up the political pressure?
But Sturgeon believes this resistance will falter in the face of a pro-independence majority — and if not, she has a backup plan.
Sidestepping the need for a Section 30 order, the SNP would push its own referendum bill through the Scottish Parliament, inviting a legal challenge from Westminster. The UK’s Supreme Court would then have to decide whether Scottish lawmakers have the legislative authority to approve a second independence vote. Experts believe it’s a decision that could go either way.
“We really don’t know which way the Supreme Court would rule on the question of the Scottish Parliament’s competence to authorize a referendum. It’s totally untested,” said Kenneth Armstrong, professor of European law at the University of Cambridge.
“The British government might simply amend UK constitutional law, removing any ambiguity as to whether Edinburgh has the power to sanction an independence vote,” he added.