LONDON – British and Scottish politicians on Sunday (May 9) played down the risk of a legal battle over whether Scotland can hold an independence referendum, but provided little clarity as to how London and Edinburgh would resolve their differences on the issue.
Pro-independence parties won a majority in the Scottish parliament in elections held on Thursday, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said this gave her a mandate to push ahead with plans for a new vote on independence once the Covid-19 pandemic is over.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party, which is in opposition in Scotland, strongly oppose a referendum, saying the issue was settled in 2014 when Scots voted against independence by 55% to 45%.
Johnson and Sturgeon spoke on Sunday and agreed that their immediate focus was on “working together to build back from the pandemic,” according to a statement from Johnson’s Downing Street office that made no mention of the independence issue.
With speculation mounting that the British government would go to court to stop a referendum, senior minister Michael Gove was repeatedly asked during TV interviews on Sunday how London would handle the Scottish issue.
He refused to give any details, arguing that the Scottish people want politicians to focus on issues such as recovery from the pandemic and how to fix problems such as poor education outcomes for Scottish pupils and high drug use.
However, Gove appeared to brush away the idea of a court battle. Asked on the BBC whether the government would take Sturgeon to court to stop her from holding a referendum, he said: “No, the first thing I should say is congratulations to Nicola (on her election victory).”
Asked to confirm whether he was definitely saying “no” to legal action, Gove said: “We’re not going near there.”
Political commentators differed on whether Gove’s answers amounted to a commitment not to go to court or to dodging the question.
Sturgeon herself, appearing shortly after Gove on the same BBC programme, said that regardless of his exact intended meaning it would be “absurd and completely outrageous” for the British government to take legal action to stop a referendum.
“For this to end up in court, which is not something I ever want to see, it would mean that a Conservative government had refused to respect the democratic wishes of the Scottish people,” she said.
Sturgeon argued that if the British government tried to use “force of law” to prevent a referendum, that would amount to saying that the 300-year-old union between England and Scotland was no longer based on consent.
“I don’t think we will get there,” she said.
Under the 1998 Scotland Act – which created the Scottish parliament and devolved some powers from London to Edinburgh – all matters relating to the “Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England” are reserved to the UK parliament.
Under the act, the UK parliament can grant the Scottish government the authority to hold a referendum, a process that was used to allow the 2014 plebiscite to go ahead and which Sturgeon said should unfold again for a new referendum.