LONDON — Scotland’s first minister on Tuesday announced plans for a referendum next year on Scottish independence, reopening the battle over her country’s future and challenging Britain’s top judges to prevent her from holding it.
The announcement by the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, sets the stage for a high-stakes legal and political battle over the fate of Scotland, and presents another problem for Britain’s embattled prime minister, Boris Johnson, as he seeks to retain his grip on power after a series of scandals and political reversals.
“Now is the time — at this critical moment in history — to debate and decide the future of our country,” Ms. Sturgeon told members of the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday. She proposed Oct. 19, 2023, as the date for the second vote on independence in a decade — something Mr. Johnson has ruled out.
Ms. Sturgeon’s statement ends a lull in the campaign for Scottish independence, which took a back seat during the pandemic, and moves the issue back to the top of her agenda. Now, Ms. Sturgeon said in Edinburgh, was the time to “let the people decide.”
But before Scottish voters have a chance to make any choice, the first decision will in fact be up to the judges. Most legal experts believe that, to be lawful, permission for a referendum needs to be granted by Mr. Johnson, who has been steadfast in his opposition.
That contention will now be tested in Britain’s Supreme Court after Scotland’s top law officer, the Lord Advocate, agreed on Tuesday to refer to judges in London the question of whether the Scottish Parliament has the power itself to legislate for a consultative referendum on independence.
Speaking on his way to a NATO summit in Madrid, Mr. Johnson said he would study the proposal but added: “I certainly think that we’ll have a stronger economy and a stronger country together.”
In Edinburgh, Douglas Ross, who leads Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives in Scotland, said Ms. Sturgeon was putting her “plans to divide Scotland front and center” while relegating the country’s real priorities to the “back burner.”
Despite the rhetorical exchanges, it remained far from clear that Scots — who voted against independence in a 2014 referendum — would get the chance to decide again any time soon.
James Mitchell, a professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, described the announcement on Tuesday as a political maneuver, saying that the prospects of a referendum taking place next year were “slim, to put it mildly.”
Ms. Sturgeon could, however, still benefit politically even if the Supreme Court rules against her plan. In that scenario, she would hope to increase public support for independence by portraying the decision as a denial from London of Scotland’s right to self-determination, Professor Mitchell said.
“If the Supreme Court says, ‘No, you can’t have a referendum,’ she will say, ‘That’s an argument for independence,’” he said. He added that, in the medium term, the likely outcome would be stalemate and protracted “trench warfare” over independence.
Ms. Sturgeon needs her referendum to be legal because she wants Scotland to rejoin the European Union, which would not accept a country whose vote for independence was not legally watertight.
If she loses in the Supreme Court, Ms. Sturgeon said she would try to turn the next general election into “a ‘de facto’ referendum,” to ramp up the political pressure on London to grant a vote.
Opponents of independence argue that, during the divisive referendum on independence in 2014, both sides accepted that the contest presented a once-in-a-generation choice. The prime minister at the time, David Cameron, had agreed to that plebiscite, which was also technically consultative.
But Ms. Sturgeon’s supporters point to material changes since then that justify a second vote.
The biggest of those was Brexit, which went ahead despite a clear vote in Scotland, in a 2019 referendum, to remain in the European Union. Outnumbered by pro-Brexit voters in England and Wales, Scots then found themselves severing close economic ties with continental Europe, as Mr. Johnson opted for a clean break from the European Union and struck a minimalist trade agreement with the bloc.
With his upper-class English mannerisms, Mr. Johnson is an unpopular figure in Scotland, so much so that four of the six Scottish lawmakers who represent his Conservative Party in the British Parliament said they voted for him to stand down during a recent confidence motion.
Mr. Johnson narrowly survived that challenge to his authority, albeit with more than 40 percent of his own members of Parliament seeking to oust him over a scandal about lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street. Last week, he suffered two big electoral defeats in contests for parliamentary seats that had become vacant, including one of the biggest voting upsets of recent times.
But while Mr. Johnson’s persona, behavior and policies may have strengthened the political argument among Scots for independence, Brexit has complicated the economic one. If a newly independent Scotland joined the European Union, it would have a customs and trade land border with England, its biggest trading partner — possibly creating a kaleidoscopic set of problems for both countries and the European Union, as illustrated by the current disputes between Britain and the bloc over Northern Ireland.
Opinion polls suggest that this and other issues have left the Scottish population pretty equally divided over the merits of independence.
Nonetheless Ms. Sturgeon, who is under pressure from some of her activists to move faster, appears to have decided that there is little point in delaying and that, if granted, a pro-independence referendum campaign next year could be won.
“I think there was a window of opportunity that opened up immediately after the Brexit referendum, but that window is closing,” Professor Mitchell said.
Ms. Sturgeon “has calculated that if she doesn’t go now she may not get another chance,” he said, adding: “She’s thrown the dice but she hasn’t got much choice, she doesn’t have a strong hand when it comes to having a referendum.”