Can Scotland declare unilateral independence?

Written by Chris Thornton | 24th of April 2023
Can scotland declare unilateral independence?

In theory, Scotland could attempt to declare unilateral independence, but doing so would likely face significant legal, political, and practical challenges.

The United Kingdom is a sovereign state composed of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The UK's constitutional framework does not provide a clear legal path for a unilateral declaration of independence by one of its constituent countries. Generally, independence is achieved through negotiations and agreements between the seceding territory and the central government.

An independence referendum

In the case of Scotland, the 2014 independence referendum, which resulted in a majority vote against independence, was conducted with the agreement of the British government. A future independence referendum would likely require a similar agreement to be considered legal and legitimate.

If Scotland were to declare unilateral independence (also called a UDI) without the consent of the UK government, it could lead to a constitutional crisis and potentially a wide range of political, economic, and social consequences. Furthermore, the international community's recognition of Scotland's independence would be uncertain, as countries typically hesitate to recognize unilateral secession without clear legal foundations and broad political support.

Scottish Independence

So what is the legal path to independence? I have mentioned a referendum above, but since 2014 and despite there being considerable change within the UK (Brexit) enough to warrant a new referendum, so far, it has been denied by the UK government. Referendum legislation is within the remit of the Scotland Act, established in 1998.

The SNP (Scottish National Party), the main party of Scottish Independence, has convincingly won every election since 2014, with a new referendum as its main political mandate. So Scots democratically voted for an independence-seeking political party in 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2021 but were emphatically told "no" to a new referendum.

The question is, how can Scots democratically vote for their country's future if continually denied by the neighbouring country? The UK Supreme Court rejected the Scottish Governments plans to hold a referendum in 2023 after a short legal case.

A De Facto Referendum

This was a plan originally put forward by former SNP Leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Basically, at the next Scottish or UK-wide election, the SNP would stand on one issue alone; a vote for SNP would be a vote for independence.

Independence supporters welcomed this plan; it was the first time a new strategy had been proposed other than basically asking the UK government if we could hold a referendum and being told no ad nauseam. It was seen as more radical and gave hope that independence could be within their grasp.

Nicola Sturgeon backtracked on this plan and again went back to the old plan of winning elections and asking for a referendum. The de facto referendum was again posited if that failed.

Glasgow Independence March 2018.
An independence march in Glasgow 2018.

FAQs on a unilateral declaration of independence

Here are a few frequently asked questions on a unilateral declaration of independence:

What is the current political status of Scotland?

Scotland is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, along with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It has its own devolved government, the Scottish Parliament, which has legislative powers over certain areas, such as health, education, and transportation. However, the UK Parliament in Westminster retains control over areas like foreign policy, defence, and economic policy.

What was the result of the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum?

In the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, voters were asked if Scotland should become an independent country. The result was 55.3% voting against independence (No) and 44.7% voting in favour of independence (Yes).

What is the legal process for Scotland to become independent?

The United Kingdom does not have a clear legal process for a country to secede. However, in the case of the 2014 referendum, the UK government and the Scottish government agreed to the process through the Edinburgh Agreement. A future independence referendum would likely require a similar agreement between the two governments to be considered legal and legitimate.

What are the main arguments for and against Scottish independence?

Proponents of Scottish independence argue that an independent Scotland would have greater control over its political, economic, and social policies and that it could better address the needs and aspirations of the Scottish people. Opponents argue that remaining part of the UK provides economic stability, shared resources, and a stronger international presence and that the risks and uncertainties associated with independence outweigh the potential benefits.

Please read more on my dedicated article - Why does Scotland want independence?

Scottish oil rig.
Resources are at the heart of the independence debate.

What would happen to Scotland's membership in the European Union if it became independent?

Scotland was already removed from the European Union, despite voting to remain in the Brexit referendum. If Scotland were to become independent, it would need to apply for membership in the European Union. While there is no guarantee that it would be accepted, Scotland would likely have a strong case for membership given its previous history as part of the EU through the UK. However, the process of joining the EU can be lengthy and complex, and Scotland would need to meet the necessary criteria and negotiate the terms of its accession.

Did New Zealand use a unilateral declaration of independence to separate from the UK?

No, New Zealand achieved independence via a much more gradualist route over nearly 150 years, culminating in full legal independence when Parliament passed the Constitution Act 1986.

Did Ireland declare unilateral independence?

The Irish War of Independence was fought between 1919 to 1921 and resulted in the majority of Ireland becoming an independent country. 2300 people died in this conflict. Ireland was partitioned, with Northern Ireland remaining within the control of the United Kingdom. So I guess it was a form of UDI, but not one we would like to repeat in Scotland.

Key information on a unilateral declaration of independence

  • Many Scottish independence supporters love the idea of a UDI, but a larger amount think it would be a bad idea.

  • International recognition: Gaining recognition from the international community and complying with international law is crucial for a newly independent country, and unilateral secession may make this more difficult to achieve.

  • Winning an independence referendum is considered by most to be the best path to Scottish Independence.

  • Using an election as a referendum was planned by former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon but later dropped.

  • Until the Scottish and UK governments can agree on a second independence referendum date, there seems to be no legal way to achieve independence.

Scotland has a distinct national identity.
Will Scotland achieve independence one day?


While Scotland could theoretically declare unilateral independence, the legal, political, and practical challenges would make this a difficult and potentially disruptive path to pursue. A negotiated path to independence, such as through a mutually agreed-upon referendum, is more likely to be considered legitimate and garner support both domestically and internationally.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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James Dick
30th of June 2023 @ 00:49:19

Westminster has several times confirmed Scotland's right to Self Determination. Therefor instead of going to the country in a (Yes/no) referendum, the Scottish Parliament should go to the country and ask the electorate to award it the power to hold another referendum on Independence. If a majority agree to this power, Westminster and the legal bods can hardly object since this right has been upheld already in Parliament!