Nicola Sturgeon’s full statement announcing the 2023 independence referendum

Read Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to the Scottish Parliament setting out Scotland’s path to next year’s planned independence referendum.

Presiding Officer,

The campaign to establish this Parliament was long and hard.

It was rooted in the belief that self-government would improve the lives of those who live here. And so it has proved.

There were – and still are – honourable differences about the ultimate destination of Scotland’s self-government journey.

But all who campaigned to establish this place were united in and by this fundamental principle:

The democratic rights of the people of Scotland are paramount.

That principle of self-determination was encapsulated by these words in the Scottish Constitutional Convention’s Claim of Right:

“the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.”

When the late Canon Kenyon Wright – who led the Convention – addressed Westminster’s refusal to accept the democratic demand for a Scottish Parliament with this question:

“What if that other voice we all know so well responds by saying, ‘We say no, and we are the state’?”

His answer –

“Well we say ‘yes’ – and we are the people” – was simple but powerful.

It is as relevant now as it was then.

Last May, the people of Scotland said Yes to an independence referendum by electing a clear majority of MSPs committed to that outcome.

The democratic decision was clear.

Two weeks ago, the Scottish Government started the process of implementing that decision with the first in the Building a New Scotland series of papers.

That paper presented compelling evidence of the stronger economic and social performance, relative to the UK, of a range of independent countries across Europe that are comparable to Scotland.

That should be both a lesson and an inspiration to us.

Scotland – over generations – has paid a price for not being independent.

Westminster governments we don’t vote for, imposing policies we don’t support, too often holding us back from fulfilling our potential.

That reality has rarely been starker than it is now.

The Conservatives have just six MPs in Scotland – barely 10 per cent of Scottish representation – and yet they have ripped us out of the EU against our will.

They have created the worst cost of living crisis in the G7;

And saddled us with the second lowest growth in the G20.

They are intent on stoking industrial strife, demonizing workers and provoking a trade war.

Businesses and public services are struggling for staff because freedom of movement has been ended.

Our young people have been robbed of opportunity.

Presiding Officer,

The Scottish Government will do everything in our power to mitigate the damage.

But that is not enough.

Our country deserves better.

And yet this Parliament, looked to for leadership by so many across Scotland, does not have the power to tackle the root causes of the financial misery being inflicted on millions.

We lack the full range of levers to shape our economy and grow the country’s wealth.

We are powerless to stop our budget being cut.

We can’t block the Tories’ new anti-trade union laws;

Or stop them tearing up human rights protections.

We’re not able to restore freedom of movement.

And while we invest billions in measures to help with the cost of living, tens of thousands of children can be pushed deeper into poverty at the merest stroke of the Chancellor’s pen.

Presiding Officer,

It does not have to be this way.

Independence is about equipping ourselves to navigate the future, guided by our own values, aspirations and interests.

It is about helping us fulfil our potential here at home and play our part in building a better world.

And that takes more than a changing of the guard at Westminster.

I fervently hope that the Tories lose the next election. They thoroughly deserve to.

But on the big policy issues of our time, from Europe to migration, to human rights and fairness for workers, Labour is more a pale imitation than a genuine alternative.

Labour won’t take Scotland back into the EU or even the single market. And neither will the Liberal Democrats.

They won’t restore freedom of movement for our young people.

They won’t prioritise tackling child poverty over investment in nuclear weapons.

Presiding Officer,

Independence won’t always be easy. It isn’t for any country.

But it will give us the opportunity to chart our own course.

To build a wealthier, greener, fairer nation.

To be outward looking and internationalist.

To lift our eyes and learn from the best.

Presiding Officer,

Now is the time – at this critical moment in history – to debate and decide the future of our country.

Now is the time to get Scotland on the right path – the path chosen by those who live here.

Now is the time for independence.

This parliament has a clear, democratic mandate to offer Scotland that choice.

The UK government, however, is refusing to respect Scottish democracy.

That is why today’s statement is necessary.

The UK and Scottish governments should be sitting down together, responsibly agreeing a process, including a section 30 order, that allows the Scottish people to decide.

That would be the democratic way to proceed.

It would be based on precedent.

And it would put the legal basis of a referendum beyond any doubt.

That’s why I am writing to the Prime Minister today to inform him of the content of this statement.

In that letter I will also make clear that I am ready and willing to negotiate the terms of a section 30 order with him.

Presiding Officer,

What I am not willing to do – what I will never do – is allow Scottish democracy to be a prisoner of Boris Johnson or any Prime Minister.

The issue of independence cannot be suppressed.

It must be resolved democratically.

And that must be through a process that is above reproach and commands confidence.

That is why I am setting out today the actions the Scottish Government and the Lord Advocate will take, in the absence of a section 30 order, to secure Scotland’s right to choose.

My determination is to secure a process that allows the people of Scotland – whether yes, no, or yet to be decided – to express their views in a legal, constitutional referendum, so that the majority view can be established fairly and democratically.

The steps I am setting out seek to achieve that.

They are grounded in – and demonstrate this government’s respect for – the principles of rule of law and democracy.

Indeed, these core principles – respect for the rule of law and respect for democracy – underpin everything I say today.

Respect for the rule of law means that a referendum must be lawful.

That, for me, is a matter of principle.

But it is also a matter of practical reality.

An unlawful referendum would not be deliverable.

Even if it was, it would lack effect.

The outcome would not be recognized by the international community.

Bluntly, it would not lead to Scotland becoming independent.

Presiding Officer,

It is axiomatic that a referendum must be lawful.

But my deliberations in recent times have led me to a further conclusion.

The lawfulness or otherwise of the referendum must be established as a matter of fact, not just opinion.

Otherwise – as we have seen again in recent days – opposition parties will just keep casting doubt on the legitimacy of the process, so they can avoid the substantive debate on independence which Scotland deserves, but they so clearly fear.

That is not in the country’s best interests.

Let me turn then to the detail of the steps we will now take to secure the objective of an indisputably lawful referendum.

And then ensure that, from today, we can focus on the substance of why Scotland should be independent.

Presiding Officer,

I can announce, first of all, that the Scottish Government is today publishing the ‘Scottish Independence Referendum Bill’.

I will draw attention, in particular, to three key provisions of the Bill.

Firstly, the purpose of the referendum, as set out in section 1, is to ascertain the views of the people of Scotland on whether or not Scotland should be an independent country.

In common with the 2014 referendum – indeed, in common with the Brexit referendum and the referendum to establish this Parliament – the independence referendum proposed in the Bill will be consultative, not self-executing.

Just as in 2014 – and recognised explicitly in the 2013 White Paper – a majority yes vote in this referendum will not in and of itself make Scotland independent.

For Scotland to become independent following a yes vote, legislation would have to be passed by the UK and Scottish Parliaments.

There has been much commentary in recent days to the effect that a consultative referendum would not have the same status as the vote in 2014.

That is simply wrong, factually and legally.

The status of the referendum proposed in this Bill is exactly the same as the referendums of 1997, 2014 and 2016.

The next provision of the Bill I wish to draw attention to relates to the question to be asked in the referendum.

The Bill states that the question on the ballot paper should be – just as it was in 2014 – ‘should Scotland be an independent country’.

Finally, Presiding Officer, the Bill includes the proposed date on which the referendum should be held.

In line with the government’s clear mandate this is a date within the first half of this term of Parliament.

Presiding Officer,

I can announce that the Scottish Government is proposing that the independence referendum be held on Thursday the 19th of October 2023.

These are the key elements of the referendum legislation that the Scottish Government wishes this Parliament to scrutinise and pass.

Let me turn now to the aim of establishing as fact the lawfulness of a referendum – which, as I have already indicated, I consider to be of the utmost importance.

I will start with what we know already.

We know that the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament to pass this Bill in the absence of a section 30 order is contested.

We know that legislative competence can only be determined judicially.

And we know that for as long as there is no judicial determination, opinions will differ and doubt will continue to be cast on the lawful basis for the referendum.

That benefits only those parties opposed to independence, because it allows them to avoid the substance of the independence debate

Finally, we know that if this Parliament does seek to legislate without a section 30 order, the Bill will go to court.

That is inevitable.

The only questions are: when it ends up in court, and at whose hand.

If the issue of legislative competence remains unresolved at the point of formal introduction of a Bill, the UK Government will almost certainly use section 33 of the Scotland Act to refer it to the Supreme Court after it has passed.

It is also possible that one or more private individuals will lodge a judicial review of the Bill.

Indeed, it was reported last week that Tory supporters are already planning to do so.

A challenge by private individuals could also go through successive courts, and so be a very lengthy process.

Either way, at the point of Parliament passing the Bill, there would be no certainty about when, or even if, it could be implemented.

A court challenge would still lie ahead and the timetable I have set out today would quickly become difficult to deliver.

And, of course, between now and then, claim and counter claim, good faith arguments and bad faith fearmongering about so-called ‘wildcat referendums’ will continue to muddy the water, cast up doubt and taint the process.

Presiding Officer,

That may well suit politicians opposed to independence.

But none of it would be in the interests of the country.

And none of it would serve democracy.

The fact is neither legal opinions nor political arguments will resolve this point.

We must establish legal fact.

That is why, in my view, we must seek now to accelerate to the point when we have legal clarity; legal fact.

And crucially, in doing so – I hope – establish and safeguard the ability of this Parliament to deliver a referendum on the date proposed.

Presiding Officer,

It is to this end that some weeks ago I asked the Lord Advocate to consider exercising the power she has under paragraph 34 of schedule 6 to the Scotland Act to refer to the Supreme Court the question of whether the provisions in this Bill relate to reserved matters.

This is a power exercisable by the Lord Advocate alone, not by Scottish Ministers collectively.

Whether or not she does so is accordingly a matter solely for her.

However, I can confirm that the Lord Advocate has considered this request.

She has taken into account the following factors:

This government’s democratic mandate;

The constitutional significance of this issue;

The fact that the Bill does raise a genuine issue of law that is unresolved; and

The importance of ensuring that this government and Parliament act lawfully at all times.

And she has now informed me of her decision.

I can advise Parliament that the Lord Advocate has agreed to make a reference of the provisions in the Bill to the Supreme Court.

Indeed – as I speak, Presiding Officer – the process for serving the requisite paperwork on the UK Government by lawyers and Messengers at Arms is underway.

I can confirm that the reference will be filed with the Supreme Court this afternoon.

Presiding Officer,

Whether or not the reference is accepted, how long it takes to determine, and what judgement is arrived at, are all matters for the Court to determine.

I accept that.

As I have made clear throughout, this government respects the rule of law.

However, by asking the Lord Advocate to refer the matter to the Court now – rather than wait for others to do so later – we are seeking to deliver clarity and legal certainty in a timely manner, and without the delay and continued doubt that others would prefer.

Presiding Officer,

Obviously, it is this government’s hope that the question in this Bill, proposing a referendum that is consultative, not self-executing, and which would seek to ascertain the views of the Scottish people for or against independence, will be deemed to be within the legislative competence of this Parliament.

If that outcome is secured, there will be no doubt whatsoever that the referendum is lawful.

And I can confirm that the government will then introduce and ask Parliament to pass the Bill on a timescale that allows the referendum to proceed on 19 October 2023.

Presiding Officer,

It is, of course, possible that the Supreme Court will decide that the Scottish Parliament does not have power to legislate for even a consultative referendum.

To be clear: if that happens, it will be the fault of Westminster legislation, not the Court.

Obviously, that would not be the clarity we hope for.

But if that is what the law establishing this Parliament really means, it is better to have that clarity sooner rather than later.

Because what it will clarify is this:

Any notion of the UK as a voluntary union of nations is a fiction.

Any suggestion that the UK is a partnership of equals is false.

Instead we will be confronted with this reality.

No matter how Scotland votes, regardless of what future we desire for our country, Westminster can block and overrule. Westminster will always have the final say.

Presiding Officer,

There would be few stronger or more powerful arguments for independence than that.

And it would not be the end of the matter. Far from it.

I said earlier that two principles would guide what I said today.

The rule of law and democracy.

Democracy demands that people must have their say.

So, finally in terms of process, let me confirm this – although it describes a scenario that I hope does not arise.

If it does transpire that there is no lawful way for this parliament to give the people of Scotland the choice of independence in a referendum – and if the UK government continues to deny a section 30 order – my party will fight the UK general election on this single question –

‘Should Scotland be an independent country’.

Presiding Officer,

The path I have laid out today is about bringing clarity and certainty to this debate.

Above all, it is about ensuring that Scotland will have its say on independence.

I want the process set in train today to lead to a lawful, constitutional referendum and for that to take place on 19 October 2023.

That is what we are preparing for.

But if the law says that is not possible, the General Election will be a ‘de facto’ referendum.

Either way, the people of Scotland will have their say.

Presiding Officer,

As the Lord Advocate is now referring the question of legality to the Supreme Court, it need no longer be the subject of sterile political debate.

Indeed, the sub judice principle and our own Standing Orders demand that the arguments on competence now be made in court and not here in this chamber.

That means we can – and should – now focus on the substance.

That is what this government intends to do.

In the weeks and months ahead, we will make the positive case for independence.

We will do so with commitment, confidence and passion.

Let the opposition – if they can – make the case for continued Westminster rule.

And, then, let the people decide.

Presiding Officer,

To believe in Scottish independence is to believe in a better future.

It involves an unashamedly optimistic view of the world.

The belief that things can be better than they are now.

Above all, it means trusting the talents and ingenuity of all of us who live here, no matter where we come from.

It is not a claim to be better than anyone else.

It is about looking around at all the other successful, independent countries in the world – so many of them smaller than we are and without the resources we are blessed with – and asking, ‘why not Scotland?’

Think of all of our talents and advantages –

Unrivalled energy resources;

Extraordinary natural heritage;

Exceptional strengths in the industries of the future;

Brilliant universities and colleges;

A highly skilled and creative population.

There is no reason at all that an independent Scotland would not succeed.

Nothing in life is guaranteed.

But with hard work – and the independence to chart our own course – Scotland will prosper.

And the people of Scotland have told us – all of us in this chamber – that they want the right to decide.

Today we have set out the path to deliver it.