The prospect of a second independence referendum has drawn even closer with the historic verdict by the UK Supreme Court that the Westminster Parliament must pass a law to trigger Article 50 for Brexit, but that the Scottish Parliament doesn't legally need to be consulted on the issue.
In a little over seven minutes, the Supreme Court this morning delivered a judgement that finally ended the illegal notion put forward by Prime Minister Theresa May and her government that Article 50 and Brexit could be triggered without an Act of Parliament.
As expected by most impartial observers and experts, the Supreme Court ruled by eight judges to three against the UK Government’s appeal against a High Court decision that an Act of Parliament is required to authorise ministers to give notice of the decision of the UK to withdraw from the EU.
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In a serious blow to the Scottish Government’s hopes of avoiding a hard Brexit, the Supreme Court also ruled unanimously, and also as expected, that the Westminster Government does not have to consult the devolved administrations within the UK before triggering Article 50.
The court’s decisions are certain to cause a major constitutional crisis in the UK. The Scottish Government’s case for a second independence referendum has undoubtedly been strengthened, as people will see that devolution is now legally no bar to the UK Government doing what it wants even against the declared will of the Scottish people who voted 62% to 38% to Remain in the EU.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stated: “Is it better that we take our future into our own hands? It is becoming ever clearer that this is a choice that Scotland must make.”
The May Government immediately accepted the Court’s verdict and Brexit minister David Davis came to the House of Commons and said that today's ruling would not alter the government's plans to trigger Article 50 before the end of March.
He said there would be “the most straightforward bill possible to give the decision of the people and respect the Supreme Court judgement".
He added: "I trust no-one will use it as a vehicle for attempts to thwart the will of the people or to frustrate or delay the process."
David did state that Parliament would have “many, many votes” on any deals with the EU once Article 50 is triggered, including a final vote on the revised arrangements.
He also added that the court’s decision on devolution issues “in no way diminished” the UK Government’s commitment to work closely with the people and administrations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as we move forward with our withdrawal from the European Union.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will this afternoon convene a meeting of her legal, economic and diplomatic advisors in the Standing Council on Europe, with Brexit minister Mike Russell, External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop, and Europe minister Alasdair Allan, in attendance.
In an earlier court hearing Scotland’s Lord Advocate James Wolffe said that due to the "significant changes" Brexit would have on devolved powers, Holyrood’s consent must be sought.
The Supreme Court rejected that argument saying that the principle of legislative consent does not give rise to “a legally enforceable obligation." In effect, Holyrood has no veto over Article 50.
The First Minister’s initial reaction was to say: “The Scottish Government welcomes the Supreme Court's ruling that Article 50 cannot be triggered without an Act of Parliament. It is a damning indictment of a UK Government that believed it could press on towards a hard Brexit with no regard to Parliament whatsoever.
“It is vital that the Westminster Parliament is now given the fullest possible opportunity to debate and decide upon the triggering of Article 50 and also the terms of the UK's negotiating position. SNP MPs will seek to work with others across the House of Commons to stop the march towards a hard Brexit in its tracks.
“We are obviously disappointed with the Supreme Court's ruling in respect of the devolved administrations and the legal enforceability of the Sewel Convention.
“It is now crystal clear that the promises made to Scotland by the UK Government about the Sewel Convention and the importance of embedding it in statute were not worth the paper they were written on.
“Although the court has concluded that the UK Government is not legally obliged to consult the devolved administrations, there remains a clear political obligation to do so. Indeed, the court itself notes the importance of Sewel as a political convention.
“The Scottish Government will bring forward a Legislative Consent Motion and ensure that the Scottish Parliament has the opportunity to vote on whether or not it consents to the triggering of Article 50.
“We will also use the meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee next week to continue to press for the sensible, compromise outcomes set out in the paper we published in December.
“However, it is becoming clearer by the day that Scotland's voice is simply not being heard or listened to within the UK. The claims about Scotland being an equal partner are being exposed as nothing more than empty rhetoric and the very foundations of the devolution settlement that are supposed to protect our interests – such as the statutory embedding of the Sewel Convention – are being shown to be worthless.
“This raises fundamental issues above and beyond that of EU membership. Is Scotland content for our future to be dictated by an increasingly right-wing Westminster Government with just one MP here – or is it better that we take our future into our own hands? It is becoming ever clearer that this is a choice that Scotland must make.”
More immediately, the fact that an Act of Parliament is required at Westminster will also mean a full Bill going through the House of Commons and House of Lords, meaning that May’s deadline of March for triggering Article 50 will be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
With Labour having already said it will not oppose the Bill but seek to amend it, only the SNP and Liberal Democrat MPs and lone Conservative Kenneth Clarke will vote against it in the Commons, but a majority of peers in the House of Lords are resolutely opposed to Article 50 being triggered without at least hearing more details of what it will mean for the UK.
Should the Lords oppose the Bill, the Government will face the prospect of either many months of delay in triggering Article 50, or else May will have to bring forward emergency legislation that bypasses the Lords, again provoking a constitutional crisis of enormous proportions.
Following Davis’s statement to the Commons, May is expected to announce later this week, shortly the scope and timetable of the Bill which her Government must now bring forward, Attorney General Jeremy Wright immediately accepted the result on behalf of the UK Government, though he said he was “disappointed” by the judgement that was delivered by court President Lord Neuberger.
Gina Miller, the business woman who was the principal mover in the case against the UK Government, said outside the Court: “No prime minister, no government can expect to be unanswerable or unchallenged - Parliament alone is sovereign.”
A spokesman for Number 10 said: “The British people voted to leave the EU, and the government will deliver on their verdict - triggering Article 50 as planned - by the end of March. Today's ruling does nothing to change that.”
May and her ministers will see many attempts to amend the Bill in the Commons, with the SNP pledging 50 “serious and substantive amendments.”
The party’s Westminster spokesman on the issue, former First Minister Alex Salmond said: “The prime minister and her hard Brexit brigade must treat devolved administrations as equal partners - as indeed she promised to do. For over six months the concerns surrounding a hard Tory Brexit have been echoing throughout the land and yet the prime minister has not listened.
“If Theresa May is intent on being true to her word that Scotland and the other devolved administrations are equal partners in this process, then now is the time to show it.
Now is the time to sit with the Joint Ministerial Committee and not just casually acknowledge, but constructively engage. Consultation must mean consultation.
“Our amendments will address the very serious concerns facing the UK and the very real issues that the UK government has, thus far, avoided.”
The Liberal Democrats had already said that they wanted an amendment ensuring a Parliamentary vote on the final deal, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn added his warning after the judgement.
He said: “Labour respects the result of the referendum and the will of the British people and will not frustrate the process for invoking Article 50. However, Labour will seek to amend the Article 50 Bill to prevent the Conservatives using Brexit to turn Britain into a bargain basement tax haven off the coast of Europe. Labour will seek to build in the principles of full, tariff-free access to the single market and maintenance of workers' rights and social and environmental protections.
“Labour is demanding a plan from the government to ensure it is accountable to Parliament throughout the negotiations and a meaningful vote to ensure the final deal is given parliamentary approval."
UKIP’s response was stated by Suzanne Evans who said that if either house decides to vote against the will of the people it will trigger a General Election.
She added that if the House of Lords decided to vote that way, they will be "signing their own death warrant".
At lunchtime as MP’s debated David Davis’s statement, SNP MP Stephen Gethins asked why the Government “fears parliamentary scrutiny” and pointed out that at the general election, the Tories had their worst result in Scotland since 1865 and have “one MP”.
He asked for an assurance that the UK Government would not try to bring back devolved powers to Westminster, to which Davis replied that no powers would be taken back and that there would be discussions over which powers coming back from the EU would go to the devolved administrations, with the UK Government deciding on that.
The SNP’s Angus McNeil, MP for the Western Isles, who said that as the UK Government proceeded to take Scotland out of the EU against its will, “Scotland must take the opportunity of a second independence referendum.”
He asked of the views of Scottish MPs “would be taken into account and respected,” to which Davis replied that he considered it “incredibly important that in this process we protect the interests of the people of Scotland in this negotiation.”
We will continue to update this story on The National website during what is clearly a momentous day for Scotland, the UK and Europe as a whole.