Scottish independence: 19 October 2023 proposed as date for referendum

Media caption,

Nicola Sturgeon proposes 19 October 2023 as date for referendum

Scotland's first minister has proposed 19 October 2023 as the date for another referendum on independence.

Nicola Sturgeon said the question would be the same as in the last referendum in 2014: "Should Scotland be an independent country?".

Ms Sturgeon has written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, saying she remains ready to negotiate the formal consent for the vote to be held.

She said she would press on with her plan if this was not granted.

But she stressed that any referendum would need to be "indisputably lawful" and constitutional - with the Supreme Court being asked to rule on whether the Scottish government has the power to hold a vote without UK government approval.

The UK government said it would examine the first minister's proposals, but stressed that its position that "now is not the time" for another referendum had not changed. It has also said that it is "clear" that the constitution is reserved to Westminster.

Mr Johnson said: "We'll study it very carefully and respond properly. I think the focus of the country should be building a stronger economy. That's what we're doing. I certainly think that we'll have a stronger economy and a stronger country together."

Ms Sturgeon said Scotland's top law officer, the Lord Advocate, had referred the case to the UK's highest court, with court papers being served on UK government law officers on Tuesday afternoon.

Next, the president of the Supreme Court will decide if there are preliminary matters to be addressed and when the case will be heard.

The first minister said she hoped the court would be able to "deliver clarity and legal certainty in a timely manner" instead of MSPs passing the bill only for it to subsequently face a legal challenge from opponents.

If the court rules that Holyrood does not have the power to hold a referendum, she said the next general election would become a "de facto referendum" with the SNP standing on a single issue of independence.

However, if the court rules in the Scottish government's favour, Ms Sturgeon said it would move quickly to pass its Referendum Bill, which was published while she was speaking.

She said that the lawfulness of the referendum "must be established as a matter of fact, not just opinion".

Otherwise, she said, opposition parties would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process, "so that they can avoid the substantive debate on independence".

Nicola Sturgeon has set a date for a referendum that may not happen.

That's because she's making clear it can only go ahead if it is considered legal by judges in the UK Supreme Court - and that's far from certain.

The first minister has decided to adapt her plans to test the powers of the Scottish Parliament before trying to pass a referendum bill.

That is obviously a gamble but probably less messy than risking a bill being struck down in court.

It also means we may never know if Scotland's top law officer, the Lord Advocate, would have otherwise allowed the bill to proceed.

Plan A was to win a majority for indyref2 at Holyrood in the hope of persuading UK ministers to back it.

As that hasn't worked, this is a variation on the SNP's plan B - to pursue a bill anyway and take their chances in court.

Nicola Sturgeon has also revealed her plan C. If this referendum doesn't happen, she'll fight the next UK election on the single issue of independence.

The first minister told MSPs she had written to the prime minister to ask him to negotiate the terms of a section 30 order - which would temporarily transfer the power to hold a referendum from Westminster to Holyrood, as happened ahead of the 2014 referendum which saw Scottish voters back remaining in the UK by 55% to 45%.

Ms Sturgeon said this option would put the legal basis of a referendum beyond doubt.

But with Mr Johnson having repeatedly refused her calls for another referendum to be held, Ms Sturgeon added: "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."

The first minister said: "My determination is to secure a process that allows the people of Scotland, whether yes, no or yet to be decided, to express their views in a legal, constitutional referendum so the majority view can be established fairly and democratically.

"The steps I am setting out today seek to achieve that."

She added: "If it does transpire that there is no lawful way for this parliament to give the people of Scotland the choice of independence in a referendum, and if the UK government continues to deny a section 30 order, my party will fight the UK general election on this single question: should Scotland be an independent country?"

Ms Sturgeon said that the Scottish government would "make the positive case for independence" and would "do so with commitment, confidence and passion" in the coming months.

She said: "Let the opposition if they can make the case for continued Westminster rule and then let the people decide."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The prime minister has repeatedly indicated that he does not believe a referendum should be held any time soon

According to polling expert Prof Sir John Curtice, the last half dozen polls have - on average - put support for independence at 48%, with 52% against, once "don't know" votes are excluded.

The UK government has repeatedly stated that "now is not the time" for another referendum, with a spokesman saying that remained its position.

He added: "People across Scotland want to see both of their governments working together on the issues that matter to them.

"That includes tackling the cost of living, ensuring energy security, leading the international response against Russia's invasion of Ukraine and growing our economy. That remains our priority.

"A decision has been taken by the first minister to publish a Bill, and the Lord Advocate has made a referral to the UK Supreme Court. UK government law officers will now consider their response."

Referendum is 'wrong priority'

Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said another referendum was the "wrong priority for Scotland" and would hinder Scotland's recovery from the pandemic.

He accused the first minster of "railroading" parliament into talking about the SNP's "obsession" with another independence vote.

"We won't take part in a pretend poll when there is real work to be done," Mr Ross said.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said the SNP had asked people to vote for them in the last Scottish Parliament election on the basis that Covid recovery would be the party's top priority.

He said: "Isn't it the case that the 'Pandemic Nicola' that said she wanted to pull us through is gone and the 'Partisan Nicola Sturgeon' that wants to divide our country is back pursuing a referendum that two thirds of Scots don't want right now?"

Alex Cole-Hamilton, of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said the first minister's statement was an "appalling waste of energy and focus", and that Ms Sturgeon's "fixation with breaking up the country will always trump the needs of the people that we are all here to serve".

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