The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom has ruled that the Scottish Parliament cannot organize its own independence referendum.
Wednesday’s decision was unanimous. It was confirmed that the Scottish Government did not have the legal powers to introduce legislation to allow a new vote without Westminster’s permission – something governments in London refused to give.
Despite Wednesday’s ruling, the question of Scottish independence is not going away.
The number of Scots is evenly split between those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom and those who want Scotland to become an independent nation.
So what happens next? Predicting the future in politics is notoriously difficult, but there are three main scenarios that could play out in Scotland.
The Scottish National Party may be biding its time
The SNP could wait until the next UK national election scheduled for 2025, hoping to secure a larger majority, strengthening its case for independence.
“We want this to be beyond doubt,” he said Ruaridh HannaSNP activist.
“We have to convince more people [that] independence is the best way forward,” he told Euronews.
If the SNP returned an even larger number of votes in 2025, Hanna believes it would strengthen the case for a second referendum and put pressure on Westminster to allow it, both at home and internationally.
Although he admitted it was too early to tell, he hoped the “clear democratic deficit” shown by the British government by not allowing the vote would increase support for independence.
“A lot of people across Scotland today, who used to sit on the fence, will be listening to the evening news tonight and thinking, how is this right?
“This cannot be a voluntary union if there is no way out,” he added, suggesting it becomes “quite sinister” if Scotland is “held hostage” within the UK.
However, many argued that this strategy could backfire.
If the SNP continues to focus on securing a second referendum, which for now seems unlikely, there is a risk that Scots could become frustrated by the seemingly unnecessary distraction from other issues, especially amid a recession and cost-of-living crisis.
In a statement, the Scottish Conservatives called on the SNP to “put aside its obsession with the referendum and focus on what really matters to the people of Scotland”.
“The country is currently facing enormous challenges,” the party leader said Douglas Ross. “Our economy and our NHS are in crisis.”
In addition, there is every chance that the 2025 election will not dramatically improve the SNP’s fortunes, setting the party up for a repeat of what happened before.
Karlo Bastawho is co-head of the University of Edinburgh Center for Constitutional Changessaid he was “skeptical” that support for independence would rise as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision.
“I don’t have a crystal ball… it’s open now. But if I had to bet, I’d bet it won’t really change things that much,” he said. “But then again, I might be wrong.”
The Scottish National Party could quietly park independence
Another likely scenario is that the independence issue could put the SNP to bed, at least temporarily.
“Of course, there is reasonably high support for independence in the polls,” Basta said. “However, the longer this goes on without any tangible results, the more pressure there is likely to be on the SNP to do something different.”
He suggested that Scottish nationalists faced a “very difficult choice”.
They could “move away” from independence in the medium term – something he said was not “particularly attractive” to the party – or continue to engage in “political manoeuvres” short of independence, which would risk eroding support.
They could end up “parking independence and committing to perhaps deepening or expanding devolution,” he said.
Again, there is doubt that this will happen.
“As long as the SNP is a political party and Scotland remains in the Union, the SNP will campaign for independence,” Ruaridh Hanna said.
He continued: Independence is “obviously important to the electorate in Scotland… the SNP would do the electorate a disservice by ignoring the wishes of the people.”
The SNP has won eight consecutive elections since the first independence referendum in 2014. The party, along with the Scottish Greens, holds the largest pro-independence majority ever in Holyrood.
However, faced with the current impasse, Hanna said the SNP must “explore other options”.
“There will be a conference with party members in the new year to see exactly how this is going and what form it will take.”
“There are many issues that need to be resolved in the next few months,” he added. “At the moment we have no answers”.
Anyway, go ahead
Some argued that the SNP should go ahead and hold a referendum, without the approval of Westminster.
In 2017, Catalonia held a referendum on separation from Spain, which was declared illegal by the government there. Pro-independence won with 90%, although a large number of non-voters did not turn out.
However, the SNP and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have repeatedly and decisively rejected this.
Speaking after the ruling, Sturgeon said her party would respect the Supreme Court’s decision.
“In securing Scotland’s independence we will always be guided by a commitment to democracy and respect for the rule of law,” she said.
One of the reasons for this desire to take legal action, explained Basta, was that the SNP wanted “international recognition”.
“They are fully aware that if they were to go ahead and try to organize some sort of unilateral bid for independence … they would be seen as irresponsible”.
“That would be politically unacceptable,” he added.
Many international observers of the Catalan elections concluded that they were illegitimate because they were not sanctioned by the central government and did not meet certain electoral standards.
Whatever the case, Hanna said the verdict should give everyone pause for thought.
“For those who don’t live in Scotland, they should ask themselves what this means for democracy at all.”
“If the UK government is serious about denying democracy within its own borders. What international consequences does it have? Does it set a precedent for other countries,” he added.