Scottish independence: Nicola Sturgeon vows to push ahead with 'de facto' referendum plans

Defeated in the UK Supreme Court and facing restlessness within her own party, Nicola Sturgeon has made the final roll of her political dice – a plan to use the next general election as a “de-facto” referendum to try to win Scottish independence.

The First Minister has vowed to push ahead with the “de-facto” referendum plans to try to win Scottish independence after yesterday suffering defeat at the UK Supreme Court.

Addressing journalists, Ms Sturgeon said the independence movement must find another “democratic, lawful and constitutional means by which the Scottish people can express their will” after a panel of five judges unanimously ruled Holyrood does not have the power to legislate for another referendum.

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She said the SNP would seek to establish “majority support” for independence. A special party conference is to be convened next year to agree the details of the de-facto referendum plan, she said.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: PA/Jane Barlow
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Ms Sturgeon had wanted to hold another vote in October next year, but this plan was shattered by the Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday morning. Its president, Lord Reed, said the court had unanimously concluded the proposed independence referendum Bill “does relate to reserved matters”, adding: “Accordingly, in the absence of any modification of the definition of reserved matters, by an order in council under section 30 of the Scotland Act or otherwise, the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence.”

At a press conference at the Apex Grassmarket Hotel in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon said a referendum “is the best way of asking and answering a constitutional question”. She added: “But if a referendum is blocked, then there has to be an alternative, because the only alternative to that is Scottish democracy has no way of expressing itself.”

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Referring to the next general election, she said: “No party can dictate the basis on which people cast their votes. But a party can be, indeed should be, crystal clear about the purpose for which it is seeking popular support. In this case, for the SNP that will be to establish – just as in a referendum – majority support in Scotland for independence, so that we can then achieve independence.”

The First Minister said the SNP would also “launch and mobilise a major campaign in defence of Scottish democracy”.

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Asked if she would resign if pro-independence parties failed to secure 50 per cent or more of the vote at the election, Ms Sturgeon did not directly answer the question, but said she intended to do the job “for quite some time to come”. Many suspect the plan could be her Bute House swansong.

It is not clear how it would work in practice. Scottish Labour and the Conservatives will fight the election on their own issues and the UK Government could simply refuse to engage with the result, as it has done in relation to multiple requests for a second referendum. The escalating cost-of-living crisis is also likely to dominate the coming months and years, which could squeeze out the constitutional debate.

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Asked about the likelihood of the UK Government coming to the negotiating table, Ms Sturgeon said: “Sooner or later, that’s a question that really has to be pinned not on me, but on Westminster politicians. Why is it that we just sit here and accept that I’m the one that has to answer the questions about what happens if Westminster continues to deny democracy?”

The First Minister said the de-facto referendum plan would require a “clear question” that people are asked to vote on. “That said, as in a referendum, we would have a manifesto, White Paper, that puts the arguments for independence and answers the questions that people have, so there may be a combination of the two,” she said.

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"But I absolutely take the view that there would have to be crystal clarity about what people were being asked to vote for.”

Ms Sturgeon said the Supreme Court ruling “exposes as myth” the UK is a voluntary union. She declared: “We should be in no doubt, as of today democracy is what is at stake.

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“This is no longer about whether Scotland becomes independent, vital though that decision is. It is now more fundamental. It is now about whether or not we even have the basic democratic right to choose our own future.

“Indeed from today the independence movement is as much about democracy as it is about independence.”

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The Scottish Government’s top law officer, the Lord Advocate, had asked the court to rule on whether Holyrood had the power to legislate for a referendum.

In its judgment, Lord Reed stressed the court was not being asked to express “a view on the political question of whether Scotland should become an independent country”. Instead he said the task of the judges was “solely to interpret the relevant provisions of the Scotland Act” and decide if the Scottish Government’s proposed referendum Bill related to reserved matters – which are under the control of Westminster and not Holyrood.

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The Lord Advocate had argued this did not apply because a referendum would not automatically bring about the end of the union. But Lord Reed said the court did not agree with this interpretation, saying a referendum would have “practical” as well as legal effects.

The Supreme Court president said: “A lawfully held referendum would have important political consequences relating to the union and the United Kingdom Parliament. Its outcome would possess the authority, in a constitution and political culture founded upon democracy, of a democratic expression of the view of the Scottish electorate.”

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Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross welcomed the ruling, adding: “This was a clear and unequivocal verdict delivered by the highest court in the country – and the SNP Government and their supporters must respect it.

Nicola Sturgeon insisted on taking this case to the Supreme Court at the cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Scottish taxpayer – and this ruling confirms that it was a waste of time and money. The Scottish people have made it clear in poll after poll that they don’t want another referendum next year.

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“The country faces enormous challenges right now. Our economy and our NHS are in crisis. We have a wave of public-sector strikes, including the first teachers’ strike in almost four decades. These key issues must be everyone’s top priority.

“Holding another divisive referendum next year is the wrong priority at the worst possible time for Scotland.”

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Asked about the de-facto referendum plan, the Tories insisted “the people of Scotland – not Nicola Sturgeon – will decide what the next general election is fought on”, adding: “The SNP have no place dictating to voters that it will be a de-facto referendum on the constitution.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said: "It was right for the Scottish Government to seek legal clarity on this question. The Supreme Court's answer was clear and I thank them for their speedy work in this case.

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"We must now focus on the problems facing our country, from rising bills to the crisis in our NHS. There is not a majority in Scotland for a referendum or independence, neither is there a majority for the status quo. One thing is clear, there is a majority in Scotland and across the UK for change.”

Speaking in Holyrood, SNP constitution secretary Angus Robertson said every vote for a pro-independence candidate in the general election would count towards the independence majority – a position backed by the Scottish Greens.

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