Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to hold an ‘advisory’ referendum if the SNP returns a majority government in May’s Holyrood elections, irrespective of whether the UK government consents.
The pledge represents a change of tack from Sturgeon, who had previously remained tight-lipped over the prospect of holding a referendum without Westminster’s consent. But speaking to Andrew Marr, Sturgeon said:
“If the SNP win the Scottish election in a few months’ time on the proposition of giving the people that choice [of independence], then what democrat could rightly stand in the way of that?”
The policy announcement comes just days after modelling by the New Statesman predicted that the SNP will win 70 out of the 129 seats in the Scottish parliament, whilst the pro-independence Green Party would increase their number of seats to nine.
Scottish Labour would move into second place but lose seats whilst the Scottish Conservatives would lose approximately one third of their MSPs and drop to third.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats would remain on five seats for the third election running.
The policy to hold the referendum unilaterally has been welcomed by SNP activists who had been pressing Sturgeon to develop a new initiative in the face of successive prime ministers declining to allow a new referendum to be held.
In January 2020, after turning down the Scottish government’s request for a new referendum now the UK had formally left the European Union, Boris Johnson emphasised the “once in a generation“ vote of 2014, suggesting that his government “cannot agree to any request for a transfer of power that would lead to further independence referendums”.
Nevertheless, Michael Gove, the minister responsible for constitutional affairs, has begun chairing a weekly strategy meeting with the devolved secretaries of state to discuss the potential next steps Whitehall might take in response to another request for an independence referendum.
The legal case is currently in their favour. The first referendum of 2014 was enabled by David Cameron agreeing to Alex Salmond’s section 30 request for an independence referendum, so any equivalent second referendum would require similar consent.
However, the undemocratic nature of this process has alarmed both current and former ministers who argue it could heighten the call for independence, if a majority for independence is ignored.
A stronger devolution settlement, something advocated by Labour is also being touted as a potential counter-offer to an independence request.
Sturgeon’s policy of holding a second referendum unilaterally would circumvent the current Whitehall wrangling but may lack legitimacy.
The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, has already called for opposition parties to boycott any referendum which doesn’t have approval from London in order to avoid the scenes that unfolded in Catalonia in 2017.
There, the pro-independence government legislated to hold a referendum against the will of the Spanish government, and unionist parties subsequently boycotted the referendum.
With the vote failing to reach international standards, and reports of Spanish police brutality, the Catalonian regional government was dissolved by the Spanish Government.
When snap elections were held the following year, the independence movement suffered a drop in popular support, only narrowly retaining a parliamentary majority with 47 per cent of the vote.
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