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Sensemaker: Scottish neverendum

Sensemaker: Scottish neverendum

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Russian missiles caused blackouts across Ukraine and Moldova (more below).
  • A Brazilian judge fined Jair Bolsonaro $4.3 million for a “bad faith” election challenge.
  • Ancient gold coins confirmed the existence of the Roman Emperor Sponsian.

Scottish neverendum

The UK’s highest court told Scotland yesterday it couldn’t hold a second independence referendum without Westminster’s permission.

The decision was expected. It was also 

  • quick (delivered in six weeks)
  • short (by the Supreme Court’s standards, at 34 pages); and
  • unanimous (all five justices concurred).

Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons he was grateful for this “clear and definitive ruling”.

So what?

It’s not really definitive. On the substance of whether Scotland will move towards or away from independence the decision resolves nothing. It makes clear the UK judiciary won’t give its blessing to a unilateral referendum but in doing so may boost anti-union sentiment in Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon would have preferred a “yes” but the decision clears the way for her next gambit – turning the next general election into a de facto referendum.

There was instant harrumphing about that idea in the Telegraph and elsewhere, but if as expected Labour wins the next election, the Scottish National Party’s position that a majority for pro-independence parties within Scotland would constitute a mandate for independence may not be so easily dismissed (see below).

This is about politics. That was the Supreme Court’s message. In legalese it found that the Scottish government’s bid to legislate for a referendum related to two reserved (ie not devolved) matters – the UK parliament and the British union. Independence would end parliament’s sovereignty over Scotland and break up the union, ergo legislating for a referendum was a job for London, not Edinburgh. Translation: the future of the union and the reach of the UK parliament are fundamentally political questions to be resolved by voters and politicians; please don’t bother us with them again.

And self-determination. Their lordships said the right to self-determination “is not in issue here”, knowing full well that it is. They rejected the SNP’s contention that Scotland is being denied self-determination, on the ground that i) only oppressed and ex-colonial peoples can claim that under international law and ii) Canada’s Supreme Court found that Quebec wasn’t being denied self-determination in 1998. But pro-independence Scots have never liked being told by London whether they are oppressed or not, and they’re not likely to get a taste for it now.  

And Labour. Sir Keir Starmer says he won’t do deals with a party that wants to break up the union, but he may have to.

  • Labour’s alternative to independence and the status quo is a big new devolution package drafted by Gordon Brown and due for publication imminently.
  • Labour could win the next election with a big enough majority to force these reforms onto the statute book without Sturgeon’s consent, but only at the risk of further enraging SNP voters.
  • Equally, the SNP could hold the balance of power after the election and demand a referendum of some sort. A three-way version would be an option, offering voters a choice between no change, some change and independence.

And Europe. Brexit boosted support for independence by about 5 per cent. Those converts’ dream of Scotland in Europe lives on for at least two reasons:

i) by ruling out a Catalonia-style wildcat referendum, yesterday’s decision makes a Spanish veto of eventual Scottish EU membership less likely, not more; and

ii) the urgent need for Sunak and whoever follows him into Number 10 to ease trading restrictions with Europe makes the idea of a Scottish-English EU border more plausible, not less.

“The toughest questions now are for unionists,” says Kirsty Hughes, former head of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. “Is this a voluntary union or not?” 

That one’s for the voters.


Fifa is jeopardising its own existence in Qatar

Paul Hayward

The federation’s actions at the World Cup have alienated most of the footballing world.


Michelle Mone

Baroness Michelle Mone and her children allegedly received £29 million from a Covid PPE firm she had recommended to ministers, the Guardian reports. The Conservative peer is already under investigation by the House of Lords over her alleged involvement with PPE Medpro, which was awarded government contracts to supply protective equipment. Documents seen by the paper suggest profits were transferred to an offshore trust, of which Mone and her children were beneficiaries. Mone’s lawyer has previously said the peer “did not benefit financially and was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity”. This time around, they declined to comment. Michael Gove, then a Cabinet Office minister, said this morning he remembered being approached by Mone and that he referred all approaches about PPE to “appropriate government channels”.


Megavirus mammoth

Scientists have revived a 48,500 year-old virus from the Siberian permafrost – not out of spite, but in an attempt to better understand the perils of a thawing climate. It’s the oldest virus to be resuscitated so far and was successfully activated along with six others: three came from samples of frozen mammoth poop and wool, while a further two were found in the stomach contents of a Siberian wolf. The research by a team at Aix-Marseille University identifies Megavirus mammoth – a 27,000 year-old “giant virus with particles visible by light microscopy and genomic size exceeding that of many parasitic bacteria”. They say it’s currently impossible to estimate how long these paleoviruses could remain infectious once exposed, but also that “the risk is bound to increase” in the context of global warming.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Genomics in South Africa 

Downing Street rolled out the red carpet this week for a state visit to the UK by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa – the first of King Charles’ reign. Between banqueting at Buckingham Palace and photo ops at Kew Gardens, Ramaphosa was taken to the Francis Crick Institute – the largest biomedical research facility in Europe and a hub for genomic sequencing. It’s also where the two countries are setting out an updated health partnership, which includes bolstering South Africa’s own sequencing institute (the National Institute for Communicable Diseases) and supporting vaccine manufacturing in the continent – and not just for Covid. It will focus on “ensuring the world is better prepared for future pandemics”. South Africa hosted clinical trials for early Covid vaccines and played a leading role in identifying virus variants later.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Captive Coal 

The ink on Indonesia’s $20 billion clean energy deal signed at the G20 is barely dry and activists in Jakarta are pointing out it won’t prevent construction of 13 gigawatts’ worth of new coal-fired power plants between now and 2030. They will be grandfathered in despite the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), which is funded by the G7 plus Denmark and Norway; and despite a pledge by all concerned to restrict the development of so-called captive plants. Captive plants feed power direct to certain industries rather than to the grid, and in this case many are being built specifically for smelters working round the clock to purify nickel for electric vehicle batteries. This doesn’t mean EVs are inherently climatologically unsound. It does mean Indonesia, the world’s fifth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter after the US, China, India and the EU, needs much more than $20 billion. A coal industry representative told Tortoise last year it needs 15 times as much.


Ukraine blackouts

After a massive missile attack, almost all of Ukraine has no electricity, heating, telephone service, Internet or water supply. Nuclear power plants have stopped working. Emergency services are fixing the energy system day and night. Local authorities have created “invincibility points” equipped with electric generators where people can get warm, charge mobiles and access the internet. Kyiv’s mayor, Vitaliy Klitchko, says there is an emergency plan for further blackouts but it does not include total evacuation. President Zelensky told the UN the Russian attacks amounted to “energy terror”. There are two attack strategies now: one on soldiers at the frontlines and one targeting civilians across the whole country. Worth noting: if this hadn’t already been going on for nine months it would be leading the news on every continent.

Thanks for reading. Please tell your friends to sign up, send us ideas and tell us what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch, Phoebe Davis, Barney Macintyre and Nina Kuryata.

Correction: in ‘Post-Twitter’, yesterday’s Tech States Sensemaker, we reported inaccurately that Google had announced job cuts. Google has made no such announcement. 

Photographs Getty Images

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