The UK supreme court’s unanimous judgment yesterday that Scotland cannot decide on its own to hold a referendum on independence provides legal clarity but opens up a whole new political phase of this momentous question for the UK’s future. The Scottish National Party (SNP) is now set to use its performance in the next general election as a de facto referendum on independence. It would put pressure on the next UK government to concede another referendum because of changed circumstances in their voluntary and democratic union.
That strategy expresses the SNP’s gradualist approach to independence, including its determination that the legal process be consensual with London so as to ensure a new state has international legitimacy. It is a difficult path for the party and its cautious leadership under Nicola Sturgeon. They need to maintain political momentum among impatient supporters, but they risk failing to achieve a 50 per cent majority in Scotland against a re-energised Labour Party and a discredited Conservative party when the election comes.
Scottish voters remain evenly divided on independence, according to polling. There is little sign as yet of a decisive shift in its favour, despite substantial swings towards independence among those who want Scotland back in the EU and among younger voters. Against such trends, many worry about a viable economy with a hard border between a new state and a Eurosceptic England. Nor can the SNP rely on making their support for a possible minority Labour government conditional on another referendum, as that might become toxic during the election campaign. Much will depend on how convincingly the Labour party proposes to reform devolution in the UK as an alternative to its break-up were Scotland to leave.
That stark prospect underlines how much is at stake. Whichever way Scotland goes has large implications for Ireland, North and South. A shift towards independence could bolster debates on Irish unity – or away from it towards deepening existing structures on this island.