Nicola Sturgeon will fail to win Scottish independence even if the Supreme Court on Wednesday rules that she has the legal power to stage a referendum, the SNP’s former deputy leader has said.
Jim Sillars told The Telegraph he hoped the UK Government would triumph in the test case, and the court’s five justices ruled this morning that Ms Sturgeon cannot stage a legal separation vote.
He argued that any referendum staged by Ms Sturgeon would be nothing more than a “glorified opinion poll”, the result of which would be rendered meaningless by Unionist parties and voters boycotting it.
Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, the Prime Minister’s most senior law officer, argued during the Supreme Court hearing last month that any such referendum would be “entirely advisory” and have no legal effect.
Mr Sillars also warned Ms Sturgeon had “put the cart before the horse”, arguing she had focused on staging a referendum without building up the majority support for independence required to win.
He concluded that the Prime Minister should instead focus on “domestic priorities” such as the litany of problems afflicting the Scottish health and education systems. It emerged this week that Scottish NHS chiefs have discussed charging wealthy patients.
The court, led by its Scottish president, Lord Reed of Allermuir, is to hand down its decision at 9.45am on whether her proposed Referendum Bill is within Holyrood’s powers. Constitutional affairs are reserved to Westminster.
However, the five justices may also refuse to make a ruling if they consider it premature. The Prime Minister has yet to even table the legislation at the Scottish Parliament.
If she loses, Tory ministers are expected to urge Ms Sturgeon to shelve her referendum plans and focus on the cost of living crisis.
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said SNP ministers “should abandon their referendum obsession and work with Rishi Sunak and the UK Government to tackle the big challenges we all face and focus on the right priorities for our country”.
But thousands of independence supporters are expected to gather at 15 rallies across Scotland to mark today’s ruling, with speakers arguing that Scots are trapped inside the Union with no way for them to break free.
Ms Sturgeon has previously said that her back-up plan is to use the next general election as a “de facto referendum”, arguing that she could open independence negotiations with the UK Government if nationalist parties get more than 50 percent of the popular vote.
However, senior SNP insiders are extremely skeptical about the proposal, warning that the 50 percent threshold could be especially difficult to reach if Scots see the opportunity to vote in a Labor government.
Mr Sillars said he hoped the Supreme Court concluded that “the constitution is reserved and the Scottish Parliament cannot hold a referendum”.
He said: “The referendum proposed by Nicola Sturgeon is nothing more than a glorified opinion poll, which, to be effective, would rely on Unionists taking part in the debate and the vote.”
Arguing that they would not, he asked: “Are we going to spend public money on a glorified poll in which only 50 percent of the electorate turns out?… The result would have no effect.”
With most opinion polls showing Scots continuing to reject independence, Mr Sillars said: “We have not built up the core vote required to win a referendum.
“We need to build up support to a level where no Westminster government could deny a referendum. If we have a referendum first, I don’t think we would win.”
The Supreme Court justices will issue their ruling following a referral from the Lord Advocate, who argued that they should settle the “critically important question”.
However, Ms Bain admitted she lacked “confidence” the Bill was within Holyrood’s powers. She normally certifies government legislation as lawful before it is tabled.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Lord Advocate’s reference of this question to the Supreme Court was intended to achieve legal clarity on this point. We are aware a judgment will be handed down by the court and ministers will respond shortly thereafter.”
Stephen Noon, the former head of strategy for the Yes Scotland referendum campaign, argued Ms Sturgeon should “pause” her plans even if she won the court case.
Speaking at an event at Glasgow University hosted by the UK in a Changing Europe, he said: “Even if it’s a Yes tomorrow, I would like there to be a bit of a pause, and actually design a process which leads up to a referendum where we’re actually making a decision based upon what we think the Scottish people are actually wanting for the future.”
He added: “The ideal for me would be getting to a place where you’ve a proposal which commands the support of 55, 60 percent of the people of Scotland, and you then put that to a referendum.”