Wednesday’s High Court judgment did not end the movement towards Scottish independence, but instead returned it to the realm of electoral politics.

Two high-profile disputes over Scottish independence have been decided this week by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

The first was a lawsuit brought by the Scottish Government. This was about whether the Scottish Parliament could issue a referendum on Scotland’s independence from the UK.

The Scottish Government lost this case, although the court was careful to say that the claim was properly made. The judges unanimously ruled that the Scottish Parliament had no power to set up such a referendum, as it was “reserved” for the British Parliament at Westminster.

The effect of this ruling is that it is now impossible for the Scottish Government to call a referendum without the consent of the British Government, and that consent will not be granted for the foreseeable future.

And that brings us to the second dispute, which is not about a lawsuit but about constitutional first principles. There is a fundamental question for those in favor of Scottish independence whether a “legal” or a “political” route should be followed.

The legal route is about pushing existing legislation as far as possible to push for an independence referendum, and the political route is about seeking and obtaining a mandate in elections for a referendum.

The impact of the Supreme Court judgment is that the legal route has come to an end. There is no appeal from the court on this or any other question. The legal strategy no longer has a purchase.

The political route has won and this court ruling is likely to strengthen the political campaign for independence. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already said she sees the next general election as a “de facto” independence referendum.

Sturgeon has also said she accepts the court’s ruling. She’s right to do that. The Supreme Court could have reached a different decision, but their application of the Scotland Act was not controversial in this case. It is not the fault of the judges that the law itself fails.

The High Court has confirmed what was already seen as a fundamental political truth: there are strict limits to what the Scottish Parliament and Government can and cannot do without the consent of the UK Government and Westminster Parliament.

There is no autonomy for Scottish unilateral action on union issues, despite the rhetoric that the UK is a union of equals. England and English politicians get a veto.

So the Supreme Court has referred the issue back to elected politicians to decide. Holding an independence referendum is no longer a battle between parties in a court of law, but between political parties in upcoming elections.

Wednesday’s verdict did not end the movement towards Scottish independence, but instead returned it to the realm of electoral politics. And that may have been the Scottish Government’s plan all along.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.



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