November 23, 2022 - 12:23pm

In a rare bit of good news, the Supreme Court has unanimously thrown out Nicola Sturgeon’s attempt to have the Scottish Parliament legislate for a referendum on independence.

Handing down “an unexpectedly decisive decision”, in the words of one informed and nat-leaning commentator, the judges stated that the legislation the SNP have brought forward at Holyrood clearly related to “the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England and the Parliament of the United Kingdom”, and therefore lay outwith the competence of the devolved authorities.

While there has never been too much doubt about whether or not the constitutional authority to sanction an independence vote lay in Westminster, some nationalists had hoped they could win the case on the basis that the proposed referendum be ‘advisory’.

They would, naturally, have imputed to it exactly the same moral weight as a formal vote; already the arguments against unionists simply abstaining, as they would have done, were being aired. But that’s all moot now. The SNP has suffered a setback. The question is: where do they, and their unionist opponents, go from here?

For the nationalists, this is going to be the moment of truth about Sturgeon. Is she actually going to proceed with her so-called ‘plan B’ and try to use the next general election as a proxy vote on separation? The hard work of building a sustained polling majority for independence, which the First Minister once said was necessary to make it work, has not been done. The voters are not where the SNP need them to be. In fact, the party has never won a majority of the vote in a Scottish election, something the Tories have managed.

Even if they did gain a majority, despite the litany of failures that constitute their domestic record, such a ‘proxy vote’ is no basis for a stable, internationally legitimate breakaway. It basically amounts to a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, putting Sturgeon in similar international legal territory to Rhodesia’s Ian Smith.

To a growing number of sceptical nationalists, it looks as if the First Minister is prepared to inflict an avoidable defeat on the separatist movement for the sake of having a good excuse to bow out of frontline politics. It’s all a long way from when Sturgeon was being hailed as an “angel of the north” after she succeeded Alex Salmond.

Meanwhile, there’s the question of how, or indeed whether, Westminster will capitalise on this rare shaft of constitutional sunlight. With a referendum now off the table, this would be the ideal time to press on with the faltering effort to expand the British Government’s role in national life outside England. The focus could then be shifted away from the constitution and onto key issues such as health and education, where the devocrats’ records are ripe for attack.

Unfortunately, the Tories are busy fighting about Europe, while Labour have outsourced their constitutional thinking to Gordon Brown, whose determination to be remembered as a man of significance means he will keep feeding damaging concessions of even more powers to Sturgeon’s paper tiger. A more competent unionist movement would be able to spot the wounded beast opposite them, and capitalise accordingly.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.