LONDON (Reuters) – Scottish nationalists are pushing for an independence referendum to be held after Scotland’s parliamentary elections this May, but British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says such a vote should occur only once in a generation.
In a 2014 referendum, Scotland voted 55% -45% to stay in the UK, but Brexit and the UK government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis have bolstered support for independence among Scots, and demanded a second vote.
The referendum’s first move was a victory for the ruling nationalist Scottish National Party in Scottish Parliamentary elections on May 6. Surveys show they are on track to win a clear majority.
Scottish First Minister Sturgeon, who is also the leader of the SNP, said he then wanted to submit the bill to parliament for a referendum to be held “at the start of a new term”.
WHAT DOES A REFERENDUM MEAN?
If the Scots choose to leave, it will be Britain’s biggest shock since Irish independence a century ago – much like all Britain grappling with the effects of Brexit, a move Scottish voters strongly object to.
The British have shared the same monarchy since 1603, when King James VI of Scotland became James I of England. In 1707, a formal union formed the Kingdom of Great Britain.
Today, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland tie England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into an economy worth $ 3 trillion a year.
Under the Scottish Act of 1998 – which created the Scottish parliament and ceded some powers from Westminster – all matters relating to the “United Kingdom of Scotland and England” belong to the British parliament in London.
Westminster could authorize the Scottish government to hold a referendum using a so-called “Section 30” order, a process used to allow the 2014 vote to continue.
As a result, it gave Johnson a say in whether Scotland gets a referendum or not.
WILL BE PERMITED?
In January 2020, Johnson refused Sturgeon’s permission to hold another referendum, saying the 2014 vote had been a “once in a generation” event, and he had ruled it out many times since.
The SNP said that, if he won the election in May, Johnson would have no “moral or democratic justification” to reject another referendum.
If he says “No” again, the SNP says the Scottish government will push through by passing a referendum bill in the Edinburgh parliament, and that Johnson should go to court to “block the will of the Scottish people”.
Before the Scottish law is enacted, it can be referred to the Supreme Court, Britain’s highest judicial body, to decide whether it exceeds the powers of the Scottish parliament under the Scottish Act.
It is almost certain that the referendum bill, if passed without explicit permission and in opposition to the British government, will be referred to.
Judge David Hope, a former vice president of the Supreme Court, said the Scottish law was a major obstacle to the Scottish government: “They are caught up in a very carefully drafted law.”
Others think it’s not that obvious. “There are honorable arguments to say that the referendum bill will be in the competence of being bestowed,” said Professor Aileen McHarg, a constitutional law expert at Durham University.
TESTING THE WATER
Questions about the need for an Article 30 order, and the ability of the Scottish government to hold a referendum without London’s permission, have been tested in Scottish courts.
The Edinburgh Session Court said on Friday, February 5, that the case brought by independence campaigner Martin Keatings was premature, and refused to decide the legal issues raised.
Keating said he would appeal, and the case could eventually end in Britain’s Supreme Court.
If the proposed referendum is blocked by Johnson and the court, some on the SNP say the Scottish government should go ahead, with an indicative vote.
But others in the party and jurists said that, since the legitimacy of such a vote was questioned, opponents of independence would only boycott it, thereby damaging its credibility.
“Without a statutory basis, it seems to me not a complete initiator,” said McHarg.
($ 1 = 0.7301 pounds)
Edited by Guy Faulconbridge