SNP Sets Out Independence Vote Plan as Judge Weighs Ruling

Scotland’s governing party set out a road map for a referendum on independence after the coronavirus pandemic, while a judge said she will make a “very swift” ruling on whether the country has the power to hold one without the U.K.’s approval.

The Scottish National Party published on Saturday an 11-point plan that states that any new vote must be “beyond legal challenge.” But the document leaves open the possibility that the Scottish Parliament could back holding a referendum to force Westminster to then block it in the courts.

Separately, Judge Ailsa Carmichael is considering a crowd-funded case brought in the Court of Session by a Scottish independence campaigner to establish whether the parliament in Edinburgh already has the legal means to call a vote. She will either accept or reject the application -- or opt not to offer an opinion.

The publication of the SNP’s latest plan is an escalation of a stand-off with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government in London. The political and legal machinations come ahead of an election in May that’s being framed as a vote on the right to another referendum on Scotland’s future.

Polls show the SNP is on track to win a majority, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to hold a plebiscite in the “early part” of the next parliamentary session. A Panelbase survey published in the Sunday Times shows support for independence leading the union camp by 49% to 44%, with 7% undecided.

The legal action, meanwhile, is being led by Aidan O’Neill on behalf of Martin Keatings, who is standing as an independent candidate in the May elections. O’Neill won a case against the U.K. government when Johnson tried to suspend parliament in 2019.

Just Bluster?

O’Neill urged Judge Carmichael to “step up to the plate” and settle the question ahead of the election. “The Scottish public should not be voting in ignorance in 2021 of whether or not the Scottish Parliament can or cannot legislate for a second referendum,” he said. Voters need to know whether talk of one is “just bluff and bluster,” he said.

Johnson has rebuffed calls for a vote on separation, arguing that a 2014 referendum, in which Scots voted to remain in the U.K. by 55% to 45%, had settled the matter for the foreseeable future. That vote was held after then Prime Minister David Cameron granted an order that transferred the necessary powers to Edinburgh.

Opinion polls now consistently show majority support in Scotland for breaking away from the rest of the U.K. following Britain’s departure from the European Union. Sturgeon’s administration is opposed to Brexit, and Scotland voted against it in 2016.

The Panelbase survey suggests that the independence movement will benefit if Johnson remains prime minister. Some 37% of Scots say independence is more likely with Johnson in charge, a figure that drops below 30% if Chancellor Rishi Sunak or Labour Party leader Keir Starmer were to become prime minister.

Sturgeon has dismissed calls from within her own party to consider alternative routes for a new vote when faced with Johnson’s refusal to sanction one. The Scottish government isn’t taking part in the court case while the U.K. government argues it’s academic, premature and irrelevant.

“A disputed referendum is absolutely the worst way for an independent Scotland to come into being, so she’s right to be cautious,” said Alan Convery, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Edinburgh. “The real watertight way to get this is through an agreement with the U.K. government. I think that’s still what she wants to hold out for.”

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