By Hector Sierra
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2811

Sturgeon sets a date—but courts won’t win an independence referendum

A real push for independence could accelerate the unravelling of Boris Johnson’s government. 
Issue 2811
Nicola Sturgeon behind a speaker's podium

Nicola Sturgeon says she wants an independence referendum (Picture: Scottish government on Flickr)

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon addressed the Scottish parliament on Tuesday to set out the route to a second independence referendum that could break up the British state. She named 19 October next year as the date for a vote—but very serious doubts remain on how this will happen.

Sturgeon said, “Now is the time for independence”, and added that respect for “democracy” but also for “the rule of law” will underpin the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) approach to it. She reasserted her preference would be the Westminster government granting permission for a referendum via a Section 30 order, which Tory governments have refused on two previous occasions.

Sturgeon said, “I will not allow Scottish democracy to be a prisoner of Boris Johnson.” She announced her wish to hold a fresh “consultative” vote—like the Brexit vote in 2016— asking the same question as the 2014 referendum on independence.

Immediately Sturgeon added that the Scottish government’s power to hold such a referendum was contested. If the Scottish parliament tabled the bill, it would almost certainly immediately be obstructed in the courts by the British government and through individual legal challenges.

To overcome this, Sturgeon explained she has asked Scotland’s top judge to refer the bill to the Supreme Court.

Sturgeon conceded the Supreme Court might block the referendum. If that happened, she said the SNP would fight the next general election on the single question of whether Scotland should become an independent country. She said the election would be a “de facto referendum”.

The indyref, if blocked and not held, becomes the reason to vote SNP in 2024. And that still won’t guarantee independence. While the Tories are weak and there is a rise in resistance, a real push for independence could accelerate the crisis of the British state and the unravelling of Johnson’s government. 

The problem is the SNP’s strategy continues to rely solely on the courts and parliament. It rests on the assumption that the British state, the judiciary or international institutions are neutral and will eventually accept the democratic case for independence. 

Independence supporters that have organised on the ground or participated in marches don’t have any role to play. Sturgeon added that if the British government blocked a referendum this would expose any notion of the UK as a voluntary union of nations. The right to a referendum is a basic democratic question. But the question is what is the SNP going to do to make this a reality when the British state deploys every mechanism at its disposal to stop one.

A mass movement, on a bigger scale than what have seen so far and independent from the SNP and its politics, could push back against the Tories and make indyref2 a reality.

This would mean breaking with nationalism and linking independence to the key issues affecting workers now. But the left should not allow Scottish politics for the next year to become dominated by waiting for a referendum while ordinary people are mere spectators. The agitation against climate change, the resistance to racism and deportations and the rail workers’ strikes have shown we can fight now.

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