The UK Supreme Court has ruled that Scotland’s parliament cannot organize its own independence referendum.
Wednesday’s decision was unanimous. It confirmed that the Scottish Government did not have the legal authority to introduce legislation that would allow a fresh vote without Westminster’s permission – something successive governments in London have refused to grant.
Despite Wednesday’s decision, the issue of Scottish independence is not going away.
The number of Scots is divided equally between those who want to become part of the United Kingdom and those who want Scotland to become an independent nation.
So what happens then? Predicting the future in politics is notoriously difficult, but there are three main scenarios that could play out in Scotland.
The Scottish National Party could bide their time
The SNP could wait until the next UK national election, scheduled for 2025, in the hope that they will secure an increased majority, strengthening their case for independence.
“We want this to be beyond doubt,” said Rory Hannaan SNP activist.
“We have to convince more people [that] independence is the best way forward,” he told Euronews.
If the SNP were to return an even bigger vote in 2025, Hanna believes this would strengthen the case for a second referendum and put pressure on Westminster to allow one, both at home and internationally.
While acknowledging it was still too early to tell, he hoped the “clear democratic deficit” shown by the British government by not allowing the vote would increase support for independence.
“A lot of people around Scotland today who were sitting on the fence before will be listening to the evening news tonight and thinking, how is this right?
“This cannot be a voluntary union if there was no way out,” he added, suggesting it would be “pretty scary” if Scotland was “held hostage” by Britain.
Yet many have argued that this strategy can backfire.
If the SNP continues to focus on securing a second referendum, which seems unlikely for now, there is a risk that Scots could become frustrated by a seemingly unnecessary distraction from other issues, especially amid recession and a cost of living crisis.
In a statement, the Scottish Conservatives called on the SNP to “give up their referendum obsession and focus on what really matters to the Scottish people.”
“The country is facing enormous challenges right now,” the party leader said Douglas Ross. “Our economy and our NHS are in crisis.”
In addition, there is a strong chance that the 2025 election will not dramatically improve the SNP’s fortunes, setting the party up for a repeat of what has happened before.
“I don’t have a crystal ball … right now it’s open. But if I had to bet, I’d bet it’s not going to change things that much,” he said. “But again, I could be wrong. “
The Scottish National Party could quietly park independence
Another plausible scenario is that the issue of independence could be put to bed by the SNP, at least temporarily.
“Of course there is a reasonably high level of support for independence in the polls,” Basta said. “But the longer this goes on without any tangible results, the more pressure there is likely to be on the SNP to do something different.”
He suggested the Scottish Nationalists faced “very difficult choices”.
They could “tilt away” from independence in the medium term – something he said was not “particularly appealing” to the party – or continue to engage in “political manoeuvres” short of independence, risking eroding support.
They may end up “parking independence and devoting themselves to perhaps deepening or expanding decentralization,” he said.
Again, there is doubt that this will happen.
“As long as the SNP is a political party and Scotland remains in the Union, the SNP will campaign for independence,” Ruaridh Hanna said.
He continued: Independence “is clearly important to voters in Scotland … the SNP would be doing voters a disservice to ignore the wishes of the people.”
The SNP has won eight consecutive elections since the first independence referendum in 2014. Along with the Scottish Greens, the party has the largest ever pro-independence majority at Holyrood.
Faced with the current impasse, Hanna said the SNP needed to “explore other options.”
“There will be a conference with party members in the new year to look at exactly how it goes and what form it takes.”
“There are a lot of questions that need to be sorted out over the next few months,” he added. “We don’t have the answers right now”.
Keep going anyway
Some have argued that the SNP should go ahead and carry out the referendum without Westminster’s approval.
In 2017, Catalonia held a referendum on partition with Spain, which the country’s government had declared illegal. Supporters of independence won by 90%, although a large number of No voters did not turn up.
However, the SNP and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have repeatedly, firmly, ruled this out.
After the ruling, Sturgeon said her party would respect the Supreme Court’s decision.
“In securing Scotland’s independence, we will always be guided by a commitment to democracy and respect for the rule of law,” she said.
One reason behind this desire to go the legal route, Basta explained, was that the SNP wanted “international recognition”.
“They are fully aware that if they were to go ahead and try to stage some kind of unilateral attempt at independence … they would be seen as irresponsible.”
“It would be politically distasteful,” he added.
Many international observers of the Catalan referendum determined that it was illegitimate because it had not been sanctioned by the central government and did not meet certain electoral standards.
Whatever the case, Hanna said the verdict should give everyone pause for thought.
“For those who don’t live in Scotland, they should ask themselves what this means for democracy in general.”
“If the UK government is seriously going down the path of denying democracy within its own borders. What are the international consequences? Does it set a precedent for other countries,” he added.