A special report from Gerry Hassan
The UK Supreme Court judgement that the Scottish Parliament does not have the right to
hold a referendum on independence because it is a ‘reserved matter’ to Westminster may
not have been a surprise, but this was still a landmark day for Scotland, independence and
Take some of the personalised partisan coverage. ‘End of the Road for Sturgeon’ declared
the Scottish edition of the Daily Mail with more pejorative commentary inside along such
lines as ‘Sturgeon the great illusionist has finally exhausted her box of tricks.’
The independence issue is not going away anytime soon, but the Supreme Court decision
and wider landscape throws down major challenges to both pro-independence and pro-
union perspectives – and all the major political parties and players.
The major Westminster parties – Tories, Labour and Lib Dems – have to answer the question
concerning the legal, democratic route by which Scotland can decide (should it wish) to
become independent. None of them want to respond in public, instead offering evasive
comments such as ‘I would not want to answer a question which aids the nationalists’ which
is not good enough.
On the pro-independence side, there has been no real SNP strategy since 2014 and even
more explicitly since the 2016 Brexit vote. Partly this is because of SNP incumbency and
need to manage expectations with their support and activists, and in part because despite
Brexit and Westminster turbulence, independence has not built up a sizeable political lead
and sustained majority support.
Since the Brexit 2016 vote Nicola Sturgeon has consistently posed an independence vote as
being just around the corner when it has not been. This was the logic of the Scottish
Government making the case for a referendum without Westminster permission and setting
a date for a vote in October 2023. This is the same thinking as using the next Westminster
election in 2024 as a ‘de facto referendum’ on independence (which 39% of Scots agree
with and 38% disagree according to Ipsos); driven by the need to be doing something to
dampen down disquiet amongst the SNP base and most passionate independence
supporters. A referendum is seen as the gold star route with 63% support as the best way
and only 18% opposition.
All of this should be familiar to those who have followed the broad contours of this debate.
Some will now think does any of this matter? Isn’t this game over for the SNP, Sturgeon and
independence? Or even, why does any of this matter when there is not going to be an
This all matters and people need to recognise this – and why. Firstly, it is important because
the nature of how Scotland decides on independence and its related processes says
something about the character of the UK as a union and democracy.
Secondly, the Scottish self-government and Northern Irish question are separate but have a
connection. Scotland has been told by the Supreme Court that it does not have a legal,
home-grown route to independence, while Northern Ireland still retains the right to a legal
poll on reunification through the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland Act 1998.
Just as important is why Scotland is a major issue beyond its boundaries. Scotland is one-
third the land mass of the UK; it has huge maritime waters and natural resources, and
critically, sits in the north-west corner of Europe which matters in terms of geo-politics and
international affairs. Add to that there is the question of the UK’s nuclear weapons which
are based in Faslane, near Glasgow. All this means that this debate is closely followed in the
corridors of power in Washington, Moscow and NATO headquarters.
There are big questions for the nature of the union. Many Tories through the years have
talked of Scotland’s status as a nation and right to self-determination – Margaret Thatcher in
her memoirs for one, and John Major in the foreword to the UK Government White Paper
Scotland in the Union: A Partnership for Good wrote that ‘no nation could be held
irrevocably in a Union against its will.’ And only last year Major told the Financial Times that:
‘Westminster should not refuse Scotland a referendum. It is unwise to dismiss Scottish
ambitions. A blunt refusal would be a still greater error …’
There are big questions for independence. These are not only the process points of how
Scotland gets an independence referendum but the detail and mindset of any independence
The process points (as well as detail) are covered in my book Scotland Rising: The Case for
Independence which as well as having a chapter: ‘How Scotland Gets an Independence
Referendum’ explores the case for and against independence and looks at the Scotland still
undecided and unsure or against independence. For all the rhetoric of a 50:50 nation,
underneath those headline figures is significant churn, change and movement.
The independence issue will run and run. There will be much rhetoric, noise, charge and
counter-charge. Underneath this the topic will influence and form part of the 2024 UK
election campaign and UK-wide debate.
As in 2015 when David Cameron weaponised the spectre of the SNP having influence over
Ed Miliband and Labour in a ‘coalition of chaos’, the Tories will return to this well-worn
script to try to convince English voters of the perils of supporting Labour and a minority
Labour Government in hawk to the SNP.
Despite the Tory chaos of recent times this could have some traction, but it also true that
the Tories will face an uphill struggle. A minority Labour Government would have to have a
minimum implicit understanding with the SNP, but even more importantly, it would move
the debate about the governance and state of democracy in the UK onto a new page, with
implications for the independence debate.
This is going to run and run but all the main parties in the mix – Labour, Tories, Lib Dems,
SNP and Greens – beyond their posturing and positioning have some serious thinking to do
about the nature of power and democracy in the UK and Scotland.
There will not be an independence referendum in the next couple of years, but post-2024
and in the aftermath of the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2026, this issue will more
likely return in the form of a referendum agreed by the Scottish and UK Governments.
Once you have had one independence referendum it is easier to hold a second, but how we
get there and what its terms will be remain for the moment uncertain.
Gerry Hassan is Professor of Social Change at Glasgow Caledonian University and author of
the recently published Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence
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