Indyref2: SNP will treat next UK general election as 'de facto referendum', Nicola Sturgeon says

ITV News' Peter Smith reports on the Supreme Court ruling that Scotland cannot hold a second referendum on independence without permission from the British government

Nicola Sturgeon has said the SNP will treat the next UK general election as a "de facto referendum" after the UK's highest court ruled the Scottish Parliament cannot hold a second independence referendum without Westminster's consent.

UK Supreme Court President Lord Reed announced the unanimous judgment on Wednesday after Scotland’s top law officer referred a prospective Bill to the court.

Ms Sturgeon said she respects the courts conclusion. However, she insisted the ruling "exposes as myth" the idea that UK is a voluntary union, adding that the outcome was a “tough pill for any independence supporter to swallow”.

She said she expects Westminster to maintain its position of "outright democracy denial", a position which she called "unsustainable".

ITV News Scotland Reporter Louise Scott spoke to Scottish residents to gauge reaction to the UK Supreme Court's ruling

A "de facto" referendum is therefore the most obvious choice for a lawful vote on independence, the First Minister added, insisting the Scottish government will find a new way to hold a vote on the issue.

The next UK general election is likely to be held in 2024.

She said: "In my view, that can only be an election. The next national election scheduled for Scotland is, of course, the UK general election.

"Making that both the first and the most obvious opportunity to seek what I described as a 'de facto' referendum."

It was confirmed a special SNP conference will be held in the new year to determine how to take the referendum on independence forward.

Ms Sturgeon stressed that in her efforts to secure Scottish independence she will always be guided by a commitment to democracy and respect for the rule of law.

She also said the opportunity "remains open for the UK government, however belatedly, to accept a democracy and reach an agreement".

Participants at the Indyref 2020 rally. Credit: PA

Speaking at a rally outside the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday evening Ms Sturgeon added the "voice of the Scottish people" will not be silenced.

"Any partnership in any walk of life that requires one party to seek the consent of another to choose its own future is not voluntary - it is not a partnership at all," she added.

"And while today’s ruling may create temporary relief on the part of unionist politicians and parties, they should know the hardest questions that have been posed today are questions for them."

Her comments came after a panel of five justices delivered the decision on Wednesday morning.

Lord Reed said he was pleased the court had been able to give a judgment more quickly than expected, as it was unanimous.

"The Scottish Parliament does not have the power to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence," Mr Reed said.

The ruling means the Scottish government’s top law officer, the Lord Advocate, will not be able to clear the Bill for passage through the Scottish Parliament.

UK Supreme Court President Lord Reed announced the unanimous judgment

Lord Reed said the Lord Advocate had argued the Bill did not relate to reserved matters as the referendum would not automatically bring about the end of the union.

He said the court did not agree with this interpretation, saying a referendum would have "practical" as well as legal effects.

The case was brought to the court after Ms Sturgeon set out plans to hold a second vote on independence on October 19, 2023.

During Wednesday's PMQs, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told MPs that the government respected the "clear and definitive" Supreme Court ruling.

"Now is the time for politicians to work together and that’s what this government will do," he said.

In his response, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said: "The prime minister has every right to oppose independence. He has no right to deny democracy to the people of Scotland.

"If the prime minster keeps blocking that referendum, will he at least be honest and confirm that the very idea that the United Kingdom is a voluntary union of nations is now dead and buried?"

Asking his second question at PMQs, Mr Blackford said: "It is right that we respect the decision of the court. But the prime minister can’t claim to respect the rule of law and then deny democracy in the very same breath.

"If democracy is to matter, if elections matter, then mandates matter. Since 2014, the Scottish National Party has won eight elections in a row - last year we won a landslide.

"The Scottish Parliament now has the biggest majority for an independence referendum in the history of devolution.

"The prime minister doesn’t even have a personal mandate to sit in 10 Downing Street. What right does a man with no mandate have to deny Scottish democracy?"

Echoing these comments, Allan Dorans, who represents Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock for the SNP, said his party have won eight recent elections.

He said that Scotland is "shackled, imprisoned in this involuntary and unequal union".

Former Conservative PM Theresa May urged the SNP to put the people of Scotland first and end its "obsession" with “breaking us apart”.

Speaking at PMQs, she spoke of how Scotland is a "valued member" of the "family of nations" that make up the UK.

"Does my right honourable friend agree with me that this morning’s Supreme Court decision gives the Scottish nationalists, the SNP, the opportunity for once to put the people of Scotland first and end its obsession with breaking us apart?" she said.

Recent opinion polls indicate Scotland is virtually split down the middle on the question of independence. The last vote on independence took place in 2014, with 55% of voters opting to stay in the union.

As ITV News Scotland Correspondent Peter Smith notes, there are several potential challenges for the SNP if it is to win its "de facto" referendum at the next general election.

These include the fact that 16-17 year olds, who tend to back independence in larger numbers, are not allowed to vote in a UK general election, and that the SNP has never won over 50% of the vote in an election.

The UK government, which is opposed to a second vote on independence, said it is "obvious" the Bill relates a matter reserved to Westminster.

Its legal representative, Sir James Eadie KC, also argued the Bill was at too early a stage for the court to issue a ruling on.

Shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray said the court’s decision should be respected - and insisted Labour could offer the change needed by the people of Scotland.

"The UK Supreme Court has made their decision and we should respect that and thank them for their work," he said.

The UK government does not agree with Ms Sturgeon’s proposal to use the next election as a de facto referendum, Downing Street has said.

Asked whether the PM agreed with the plan, his press secretary told reporters: "I don’t think that is the position of the UK government.

"The Supreme Court’s decision today has been very clear." She added it was a "matter for Holyrood" and declined to comment on "constitutional arrangements".

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