Election as Referendum: On Scotland’s Independence : Daily Current Affairs

Date: 28/11/2022

Relevance: GS-2: Effect of Policies and Politics of Developed and Developing Countries on India’s interests.

Key Phrases: Referendum, Scotland, United Kingdom, Consultative Plebiscite, Independent Nation, Scottish National Party, De facto Referendum, Substantive Democracy.


  • Recently, The United Kingdom’s Supreme Court ruling has extinguished the hopes of the Scottish National Party to conduct later next year a “consultative plebiscite” - a non-binding referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent nation.

Key Highlights:

  • Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom.
  • First referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom was held in Scotland on 18 September 2014.
    • The majority voted against the proposition, with 55% voting no to independence.
    • More powers, particularly in relation to taxation, were devolved to the Scottish Parliament after the referendum, following cross-party talks in the Smith Commission.

Why is this happening?

  • The Scottish government was planning to hold an independence referendum on 19 October 2023.
  • But judges at the Supreme Court ruled that this can only happen if the UK government agrees, as it did in the run-up to the previous referendum in 2014.
  • With no realistic prospect of that happening any time soon, Ms Sturgeon was left looking for another way to put the question to the country.
  • She now wants to use the next UK general election - which must be held by January 2025 at the latest - as a "de facto referendum".

What is the Ruling of the Court?

  • The highest court squashed two claims made by the Scottish government:
    • First, that the consultative aspect of the referendum implied that it would have no constitutional consequences and fell entirely within the legal scope of devolved powers.
    • Second, that it carried legitimacy under international law, which permits democratic expressions of the right to national self-determination.
  • The court argued that the devolved Parliament in Holyrood did not essentially have the power to authorize a second referendum on independence unless the Westminster Parliament agreed it could do so.
  • The court also found that Scotland’s position vis-à-vis the U.K. was not comparable to the scenario of a sub-national region occupied by a malign foreign power, subject to exploitative colonial control and refused the right to democratic representation of collective will.
    • Given that this basic standard for making claims to independence under international law could not be met, in the eyes of the top court, it was not possible now for such deliberations to reach beyond the borders.

How would it Work?

  • The idea is that the SNP would make it clear that they are campaigning on a single issue, and that every vote for them is effectively a vote in favor of independence.
  • But it is likely that if the SNP wins more than 50% of the votes in Scotland, Ms Sturgeon would use that in the same way as a referendum result and look to open negotiations with the UK government about Scotland's exit from the UK.
  • There is of course no guarantee that the UK government would agree to this, and there is nothing in law that would force it to do so.
  • Winning more than half of the votes is also an extremely high bar to cross in a multi-party election.
  • That makes it quite a gamble for Ms Sturgeon to stake her entire future on.

Would this settle the Issue of Independence?

  • Ms Sturgeon wants to deliver independence, and to get Scotland back into the EU. Whatever process she follows needs the legitimacy and international recognition to make that happen.
  • But the very fact that a general election is not a binary contest means it could throw up all sorts of different results which would change the facts on the ground.
  • For example, what if the SNP fell short of the 50% mark - even by a long way - but ended up holding the balance of power in a hung parliament?
  • They could then use that leverage to get to a referendum, even if they had just lost their "de facto" version.
  • So there are plenty of potential twists and turns left in the constitutional debate yet.
  • It's one after all which has been sustained not just by political parties, but also Scotland's electorate - which has repeatedly produced SNP victories in elections, but without ever tipping over to the point of decisively backing independence in polls.
  • The judges have done their bit in answering the legal question of process put before them. But be it by election or referendum, this is an issue which will ultimately need to be resolved in the political arena.

Way Forward:

  • The author argued that the political space for Scottish voters to express their preferences on issues other than whether Scotland ought to be independent would have disappeared, and that is not good for substantive democracy.
  • If the SNP is using the independence referendum issue to divert attention from its performance in government as an incumbent (administration of public services including the NHS and the regional economy), then that too does not help the cause of good governance in Scotland.


  • Westminster would be wise to do more to win over Scottish hearts and minds, instead of relying on the harder route of judicial and political vetoes on referendums.

Source: The Hindu

Mains Question:

Q. What is the difference between an election and referendum? Should the Indian government introduce a referendum method for using people’s view on major policy issues? Critically analyse. (150 Words).