Scottish Independence: What is a de facto referendum? How long is a generation? Indyref2 latest

With the latest ruling by the Supreme Court in Westminster that only the UK Government can decide whether Scotland hold an independence referendum or not, the SNP has already said that the next General Election will be a ‘de facto referendum’.

But that in itself raises a number of questions, not to mention the unionists’ argument that the previous 2014 independence referendum was ‘a once-in-a-generation event’. What do all these phrases mean and how do they affect the future of Scotland and the wider UK?

What is a de facto referendum?

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If the Supreme Court had ruled in favour of the Scottish Government, any indyref2 vote would not be legally binding, rather it would merely show what the people of Scotland want. With the power to hold such a vote apparently reserved for Westminster, the UK Government has been quite clear that it will deny Scotland the right to decide for itself. So with that in mind, the SNP now plan to use the next UK general election to show how many people in Scotland want to leave the UK, by holding up the number of votes for pro-independence parties - like the SNP, Alba, or the Scottish Greens – as clear evidence to support a case for independence.

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How would a de facto Scottish independence referendum work?

The details have yet to be finalised, but here’s what we know about it so far. A de facto referendum is the most obvious choice for a lawful vote on independence, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said.

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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."

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Scottish independence supporters were hoping for an Indyref2 vote to be held next year, but instead it is likely that a 2024 general election will be used to gauge opinion.

We also know that a special SNP conference will be held in the new year to determine how to take the referendum on independence forward.

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"Now that the Supreme Court's ruling is known and de facto referendum is no longer hypothetical, it is necessary to agree the precise detail of the proposition we intend to put before the country," Ms Sturgeon has said.

She added: "I can therefore confirm that I will be asking our National Executive Committee to convene a special party conference in the new year to discuss and agree the detail of a proposed 'de facto referendum'.”

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How long is a generation?

Opponents of the growing Scottish independence movement, most notably those among the UK Government, have often been quick to claim that the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, which resulted in a 55% to 45% split in favour of the union, was a ‘once-in-a-generation’ event, and should not be repeated so soon afterwards. In regular terms we may think of a generation lasting about 30 years, the amount of time it takes someone on average to be born and reach adulthood before perhaps having children of their own. Hence the ‘once-in-a-generation’ mantra is the UK Government’s way of trying to kick the issue into the long grass and hope it gets forgotten about.

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However, in political terms the answer is quite different in the UK, where we hold a general election around ever five years, and therefore choose a new generation of politicians or even a new government entirely to sit at Parliament.

Why would the Scottish people have changed their minds after 2014?

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A lot has happened in the eight years since the last independence referendum that has significantly changed the landscape of politics in Scotland and the UK. Numerous promises made during the 2014 campaign to give the Scottish Parliament more powers if the country opted to stay in the UK were quickly broken, and just two years later Scotland was dragged out of the European Union against its will. In the 2016 EU membership referendum, a strong majority of Scots (62%) voted to remain with the EU, but were forced out anyway because England voted to leave.

In the years since 2014, Scotland has consistently voted overwhelmingly against a Conservative government at the UK parliament, but has been forced to endure continued Tory rule due to voters south of the border electing the party on behalf of the rest of the UK. Many in Scotland feel this is undemocratic, not to mention frustrating when considering the constant revolving where Conservative Prime Ministers seem to come and go from Downing Street in recent years – all without any democratic input from Scotland.

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How likely is it that Scotland will vote for pro-independence parties in a de facto referendum?

In the 2015 general election 56 of Scotland’s 59 UK parliamentary seats were won by the SNP, with just three seats won by the three main unionist parties. Since then, they have lost several seats, bringing in 34 seats in 2017’s vote, and 35 in 2019 – which is still more than half. So this tactic is obviously one that plays in to the nationalists’ hands.

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When is the next UK general election?

Recent years have seen an unusually high frequency of elections, which are meant to be held every five years, but if all remains stable then the next one is likely to be in 2024. According to the Fixed Term Parliament Act, it should be held no later than January 2025, but in all probability it will be slightly before that.

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