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Scotland’s leader seeks new independence vote in October 2023

Nicola Sturgeon, who leads Scotland's semiautonomous government, answers questions Tuesday after announcing plans to hold a 2023 referendum on independence. (Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — Nicola Sturgeon, the most senior politician in Scotland, proposed Tuesday to hold a fresh referendum on Scottish independence in October 2023 through a maneuver that she hopes can bypass Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s refusal to permit such a vote.

Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland’s semiautonomous government and of the Scottish National Party, argued for the new referendum as she spoke at its Parliament in Edinburgh. She unveiled the question to be asked on the ballot: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

The question was met with cheering and clapping.

Sturgeon stressed the importance of having a “lawful” referendum, with an outcome that would be internationally recognized. Nearly eight years after voters rejected the same question on independence, she said she would write to Johnson asking for permission for another vote to be held. Assuming he refuses — Johnson has long said that a second referendum will not happen on his watch — then Sturgeon said she would press on by referring provisions of a referendum bill to Britain’s highest court.

“What I am not willing to do, what I will never do, is allow Scottish democracy to be a prisoner of Boris Johnson or any prime minister,” she said.

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There is some debate in legal circles over Scotland’s authority to hold its own vote, without permission from the British government. Sturgeon has long signaled that Scotland will not go down the path that the Catalonia region in Spain did — holding a referendum without the support of the Spanish government.

Sturgeon said Scotland’s top law official was to ask the Supreme Court on Tuesday if Scotland had the power to hold a consultative referendum without first getting the green light from the British prime minister.

Skeptics think it’s unlikely the court would rule in her favor. David Torrance, a constitutional specialist at the House of Commons library, wrote in a blog post that the prevailing legal understanding is that holding the vote would be outside the scope of the Scottish Parliament’s powers.

The role of the U.K. Supreme Court is much narrower than that of the U.S. Supreme Court. Experts say it would look at the Scotland Act of 1988, which set up the Scottish Parliament, and subsequent case law, to decide whether referendum legislation was within the purview of the Scottish Parliament. Scottish history or political arguments wouldn’t factor in.

Writing in the Spectator, Alex Massie, the magazine’s Scotland editor, said Sturgeon’s statement “quietly accepted that a referendum is highly unlikely to take place on 19 October next year.” Instead, Sturgeon “hopes to use Westminster and judicial stubbornness as leverage to push for independence harder.”

For its part, the British government has said that “now is not the time” for a new referendum. It says that the matter was settled in 2014, when Scots rejected independence 55 to 45 percent.

Sturgeon says that much has changed in recent years, including Britain’s departure from the European Union. The majority of Scots voted to stay in the bloc.

And she says that she has a “clear mandate” to hold a second referendum because a majority in the Scottish Parliament favor independence. Her side has no guarantee of winning a vote, however. Support for Scottish independence and unionism remains split down the middle.

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Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, suggested his party wouldn’t take part in a new referendum. “We won’t take part in a pretend poll when there is real work to be done,” he said.

Should the Supreme Court rule against her, Sturgeon said her party will fight the next British general election on the single issue of independence.

The Scottish independence question could be part of the arithmetic in the next British general election, according to analysts. The election is scheduled for January 2025 but could be called sooner. Current polls suggest that if the election took place today, no party would win outright — forcing negotiations to form a government. Support from the Scottish National Party could hinge on a promise to hold a second referendum.

Sturgeon said she hoped her plans would allow people in Scotland to “the right to decide.” But if that is not possible, the next general election “will be a de facto referendum,” she noted.

“Either way, the people of Scotland will have their say,” she said.