Analysis

What does Supreme Court ruling mean for Scottish independence? John Curtice on IndyRef2 and Nicola Sturgeon

The UK Supreme Court ruling may have stopped IndyRef2 from happening in 2023 but Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, plans for a de facto referendum at the next general election.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on a second vote on Scottish independence is unlikely to have much of an impact on voters, according to one of the UK’s leading polling experts.

On Thursday (23 November) the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish government does not have the legal power to hold ‘IndyRef2’ but experts think it is unlikely to have a significant impact on voters – despite dialogue now circling around a more fiery debate of the democratic rights of Scotland.

We spoke with election guru Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and senior research fellow at the Scottish Centre for Social Research, to find out what the impact of the Supreme Court ruling will have on voters in Scotland, and what Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for a de facto referendum means.

A debate on democracy

“I would be surprised if there’s much of a direct effect,” Professor Curtice said. “Because basically what the polling tells you is that over 90% of those people who are in favour of independence want a referendum (not necessarily next year but at some point in the foreseeable future) but equally those 90% plus who are opposed to independence don’t want a referendum, so there isn’t a very large market of people who are opposed to independence but think there should be a referendum.”

The Supreme Court ruling has also shifted some of the dialogue on independence. Speaking in the aftermath of the ruling, Scotland’s First Minister said the UK Government had a position of “outright democracy denial”, leading the SNP to launch a “campaign to defend Scottish democracy”.

“Are we talking about Scottish democracy or British democracy?” Professor Curtice said. “The British side is entirely democratic, there is a UK government that is responsible for the UK as a whole and uses the authority it has to say there should not be a referendum but equally there is the opposite point of view about whether Scotland should be able to have self-determination.”

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“You can argue a bit more subtly about attempts to reframe the independence debate as being about democracy and linking it to other arguments about what Scotland might be able to do as an independent country, it might become part of that wider litany. But it’s not obvious from the polling that it’s going to cause much change in the numbers. In either direction, just because the Supreme Court says there shouldn’t be a referendum doesn’t mean people are going to give up either.”

A quasi-referendum vote

Earlier this year Nicola Sturgeon said a second vote on independence, if the law allowed it, would take place on 19 October 2023. Although this will now not be happening, the Supreme Court ruling certainly does not mean the issue has been put to bed. Sturgeon has vowed to use the next general election (at some point before January 2025) as a de facto referendum, meaning if her party, the SNP, wins 50% or more of the votes, it would be interpreted the same as a referendum result. This would not only be a highly polarising moment but also a very risky move for the First Minister, who would be gambling on her political future as party leader.

“Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t need to ask people to treat an election as a quasi referendum as they have been doing already,” Professor Curtice said. “Whether she can reach the target of 50% depends on whether she can increase the level of support for independence. At the moment the level of support isn’t quite high enough. Frankly, either to win a referendum next year (if there was going to be one) or an election at some point in 2024, the Yes side needs to get the numbers up.”

What are the latest polls showing?

Polling figures sourced from What Scotland Thinks shows a tight margin between the Yes and No camps. The latest poll conducted by Panelbase week ending 10 October 2022 shows No were leading by 4 percentage points on 52% with Yes on 48%.

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Polling on Scottish independence has remained notoriously split since the first referendum but the No side regularly takes a marginal lead. The last time the Yes side were leading was back in July when it hit 51%.

Moving the dial of public opinion

Although the referendum will not be going ahead next year the Scottish government has already started to lay the foundations of what an independent Scotland could look like. The ‘Building a New Scotland’ white paper was published earlier this year.

“Those white papers need to start to engender a debate, and a debate in which people are persuaded that being outside the UK but inside the European Union is better than being inside the UK but outside the EU. There is no guarantee that they will succeed but that is the task,” Professor Curtice said.

Since the country overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU at the 2016 Brexit referendum much of the debate has been whether the country should leave the UK and rejoin the EU or remain in the UK outside of the EU. In October we spoke with Professor Curtice about the potential battlegrounds for a second referendum which was revealed to heavily focus on Brexit and EU memberships.

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“All of that raises questions for the Unionists as well,” he added. “They can say No to the referendum but not to the debate. Unionists have to decide what they can do to make the union more secure and is it sufficient simply to say No? They can carry on saying No for as long as they can control the House of Commons but is that going to be enough? The only reason the union is in doubt is because half the people in Scotland want to leave. If you want to make the union secure you have to move the dial of public opinion.”