Scotland’s first minister took a step closer Monday to breaking up the United Kingdom by announcing she intends to begin the legal process of holding a new independence referendum for Scots.
At a news conference in Edinburgh, Nicola Sturgeon said it is the "right thing” to give Scots an opportunity to express their opinion following Brexit, last year’s vote by Britain to leave the European Union. In her speech, Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party is the largest party north of the English border, said she wasn't prepared to “do nothing” while Brexit threatened Scotland’s economy and its links with Europe.
Coming in the wake of last week’s electoral surge by Sinn Fein nationalists in Northern Ireland assembly elections, Sturgeon’s announcement, although not a surprise, adds to the ramifications of the Brexit vote, which Britain’s Conservative government is struggling to contain.
Sinn Fein's party leader for Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill celebrates with party members Francie Molloy (left) and Ian Milne (right) after topping the poll in Mid Ulster, Ballymena count centre, Northern Ireland, March 3, 2017.
Moments after Sturgeon's speech, Faisal Islam, political editor of Britain’s Sky News, spoke for many British political reporters when he said, “Who knows where all of this will end.”
“Thus Brexit, which was meant to protect Britain, begins the destruction of Britain,” tweeted political commentator Nick Cohen.
Vote within 2 years
Scotland’s first minister, who heads a minority government, said she wants the vote to take place between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, arguing the British parliament in Westminster had become more assertive since the Brexit vote. She said Britain’s Conservative prime minister, Theresa May, had failed to consult Scotland before deciding on a hard break with the EU, which will see Britain not only end its political membership in the European bloc but will also see it exit Europe’s single market with major economic consequences.
In last year’s Brexit vote, Scots voted by a 62-38 percent margin to remain in the EU. After the vote, Sturgeon said Brexit constituted a “significant and a material change of the circumstances,” thereby justifying a second independence referendum. Scotland elected to remain a part of the United Kingdom in a September 2014 referendum, which was then billed by Sturgeon as a “once in a lifetime vote.”
Sturgeon will seek the authority for the independence referendum next week from Scotland’s parliament, but, the final say has to come from the Westminster parliament. It is unclear whether Prime Minister May will agree to another independence vote, or attempt to block it. That sets the stage for a confrontation between the two strong-willed leaders.
Responding to Sturgeon's announcement, May said a second independence referendum would set Scotland on course for “uncertainty and division.”
She added: “Instead of playing politics with the future of our country, the Scottish government should focus on delivering good government and public services for the people of Scotland. Politics is not a game.”
A former Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, said May would have to allow a referendum.
“The times of an imperial government in London dictating to the Scots is long gone,” he said.
Nicky Morgan, a former British Conservative minister, said, “This is extremely concerning and people are worried about it.” She said Brexit was a “seismic event” and clearly will change Britain for decades to come. “We don’t quite know where we will end up,” she said.
May has made it clear she will fight to preserve the United Kingdom. Politically, however, she could be placed in an untenable position if she tries to deny the Scots another referendum. A majority in Scotland’s devolved parliament at Holyrood backs breaking up the United Kingdom.
A spokesman for May denounced Surgeon’s announcement, arguing evidence “clearly showed a majority of people in Scotland do not want a second independence referendum.”
Government: new vote 'divisive'
He added, "Only a little over two years ago, people in Scotland voted decisively to remain part of our United Kingdom in a referendum which the Scottish government defined as a 'once in a generation' vote. Another referendum would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time.”
An opinion poll released last week put support for Scottish independence at its highest level since the weeks immediately following the Brexit vote. An Ipsos MORI poll put the two sides of the Scottish independence debate level at 50/50, after a previous series of polls had the unionists marginally ahead.
People listen and watch on their mobile devices as Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon demands a new independence referendum, outside Bute House, in Edinburgh, March 13, 2017.
Britain’s main opposition parties also have responded critically to Sturgeon, but said they would not seek to stop a vote, if the Scottish parliament authorizes another referendum, which seems likely. “If the Scottish parliament votes for one, Labor will not block that democratic decision at Westminster,” said Jeremy Corbyn, the Labor Party’s leader.
According to a British official, May will likely allow a second referendum, but only if it takes place after Brexit negotiations have been concluded with the EU, likely by April 2019. Sturgeon is adamant the vote must be held before then, maximizing Scotland’s chances of being able to rejoin the EU quickly — or even being allowed to retain membership.
“If Scotland is to have a real choice - when the terms of Brexit are known, but before it is too late to choose our own course - then that choice should be offered between the autumn of next year, 2018, and the spring of 2019,” Sturgeon said.
The main battle, then, between May and Sturgeon is not likely to end with whether there is a referendum, but when it is held.