LONDON (CN) — Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week announced Oct. 19, 2023, as her intended date for a second referendum on Scottish independence, firing the starting gun on a renewed nationalist push for secession from the United Kingdom.
Scotland voted to remain part of the U.K. in a historic independence referendum held in 2014, with 55% of voters backing the union. But the nation’s dominant Scottish Nationalist Party, or SNP, now argues that voters only chose to remain in the U.K. on the basis of continued European Union membership. Britain as a whole subsequently voted to leave the EU, though 62% of Scottish voters backed remaining an EU member in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Speaking in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday, Sturgeon said “Scotland – over generations – has paid a price for not being independent. Westminster governments we don’t vote for, imposing policies we don’t support, too often holding us back from fulfilling our potential.”
“The Conservatives have just six MPs in Scotland – barely 10% of Scottish representation – and yet they have ripped us out of the EU against our will,” she added. “Now is the time, at this critical moment in history, to debate and decide the future of our country.”
The renewed push for independence is opposed by the British government, which has ruled out another referendum. A spokesperson for the government told reporters on Wednesday, “We are clear that now is not the time to be talking about another independence referendum. People across Scotland want to see both of their governments working together on the issues that matter to them.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously suggested that another referendum should not be held for at least 40 years.
The fresh bid for independence comes after another round of strong electoral results for independence-backing political parties. In last year’s Scottish elections, the SNP won just short of a majority. However, together with the Scottish Greens – who also back leaving the U.K. – there is a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament.
Polling indicates that the nation is more or less evenly split on the issue of independence. A recent survey by pollster Ipsos MORI shows support for the union at 46% and support for independence at 45%, with 8% undecided.
In her speech to parliament this week, Sturgeon ruled out holding an unauthorized referendum, akin to Catalonia’s independence vote in Spain in 2017. She said there would be no point gaining an independence result unless it is internationally recognized, and that any doubts over legality would enable opponents to “avoid the substantive debate on independence.” As such, she has requested the judgment of the U.K.’s Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of the Scottish government holding another referendum.
At present, Scotland is a constituent nation of the U.K. While it has its own parliament based in Edinburgh which possesses extensive legislative powers, a number of key policy areas such as foreign affairs and defense remain "reserved powers" of the British Parliament in Westminster, London. Among these reserved powers are constitutional matters, meaning the Scottish government is unlikely to be able to hold an independence referendum without the consent of the U.K.’s Parliament.
The 2014 referendum was agreed with Westminster in advance, after the SNP won a majority in the Scottish Parliament back in 2011. But since Scots rejected independence in that vote, Britain's ruling Conservative Party argue that the matter has been resolved.
As such, the chances of the Supreme Court ruling in the SNP’s favor seem slim. But Sturgeon may be hoping that the appearance of London-based institutions blocking the ability of Scots to decide their future may act as a recruiting agent for independence, and tip the finely edged debate in their favor.