EDINBURGH — Britain is headed for a fresh constitutional crisis as Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon prepares to outline plans for a second vote on Scottish independence — with or without Boris Johnson’s agreement.
In a 20-minute speech to lawmakers in the Scottish parliament (Holyrood) on Tuesday, Sturgeon will set out her long-awaited route to some form of a second referendum, vowing to press ahead even if — as expected — Johnson’s U.K. government continues to withhold consent.
The first poll in 2014, in which the pro-Union side triumphed by 55 percent to 45 percent, followed then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to temporarily hand Holyrood the power to hold a referendum. This time, no such consent from Westminster will be forthcoming.
After pro-independence parties gained a majority of seats in last year’s Holyrood elections, Sturgeon argued her government now had a mandate to hold a fresh vote. In response, Johnson and U.K. ministers have pointed to nationalist statements from 2014 that the first referendum would be a “once in a generation” event, and say Sturgeon’s current focus should be on helping Scots with the cost-of-living-crisis.
Sturgeon will say Tuesday that her preferred option remains a repeat of the 2014 transfer of powers, stating in pre-released remarks: “Westminster rule over Scotland cannot be based on anything other than a consented, voluntary partnership.
“It is time to give people the democratic choice they have voted for.”
Nationalists and unionists alike expect this plea to fall on deaf ears. An official from the U.K. government said its position in opposition to another referendum would not change.
The most hotly anticipated portion of Sturgeon’s speech will therefore concern how her government plans to hold a referendum if Westminster does not grant consent.
In a press conference earlier this month, Sturgeon stressed that any efforts to hold a referendum must be done “in a lawful manner” — a reference to the widely-held view that either the U.K. government or an activist private citizen would take the Scottish government to court if it tried to hold a referendum against the will of Westminster.
One way to get around the legal difficulties could be to hold a purely advisory poll, according to a former senior civil servant involved in the negotiations for the 2014 referendum.
“Perhaps instead of a ‘referendum on independence,’ the bill is instead about something like asking the people of Scotland for a mandate to open independence negotiations with the U.K,” Ciaran Martin wrote in the Sunday Times. He added that such a measure “might stand a better chance in court.”
Some unionists have made clear they would boycott any consultative poll, regardless of its legality. But with October 2023 penciled in as Sturgeon’s ideal date for a fresh referendum, and legislation to enact a vote expected in Holyrood later this year, a court battle looks increasingly inevitable.