Nicola Sturgeon: 'A choice between Brexit and a future for Scotland as an independent European nation should be offered in the lifetime of this parliament'
Nicola Sturgeon: 'A choice between Brexit and a future for Scotland as an independent European nation should be offered in the lifetime of this parliament' © Reuters

Scotland’s first minister on Wednesday insisted the country must be ready to hold a second independence referendum by 2021 if Brexit goes ahead, but stopped well short of committing to such a vote.

In a statement to the Scottish parliament, Nicola Sturgeon hedged her constitutional bets by also calling for pro-union parties to help push for devolution of more powers from Westminster and by promising the creation of a “citizens’ assembly” to consider “what kind of country we are seeking to build”.

The statement came ahead of the spring conference of Ms Sturgeon’s Scottish National party this weekend and appeared intended to reassure its more impatient members that the drive for independence had not stalled.

“A choice between Brexit and a future for Scotland as an independent European nation should be offered in the lifetime of this parliament,” Ms Sturgeon said. “If Scotland is taken out of the EU, the option of a referendum on independence within that timescale must be open to us.”

Theresa May, UK prime minister, has in effect ruled out approving another independence referendum before the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021.

“Scotland has already had an independence referendum in 2014 and voted decisively to remain in the United Kingdom. This should be respected,” Mrs May's official spokesman said, adding that the “constitution of the UK is rightly reserved to the UK parliament”.

Scots rejected independence by 55 per cent to 45 per cent in the 2014 vote.

Some SNP members say Scotland could organise a plebiscite on its own, but Ms Sturgeon acknowledged that Westminster’s approval would be needed to put one “beyond doubt or challenge”.

She insisted that continued UK refusal would be unsustainable, but that she would for now not waste time contesting the issue with a Conservative government that might not survive much longer.

Instead the Scottish government would instead press ahead with preparations for a referendum, including necessary legislation to be completed by the end of the year. It would seek UK agreement at an “appropriate point during or shortly after the bill’s passage”, Ms Sturgeon said.

Some SNP members have called for quicker progress towards a second referendum, but others are more cautious, citing the lack of any sustained majority among Scottish voters for leaving the UK.

Ms Sturgeon in March 2017 formally called on the UK government to start negotiations on a second independence referendum, but shelved her plans after the SNP lost seats in the UK general election three months later. 

While claiming independence offered the best future, Ms Sturgeon called on opposition parties to join discussions on what new powers could be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood.

“If serious and substantial proposals emerge, this [Scottish] parliament could then present them to the UK government in a unified and united way,” she said.

Pro-union parties were unimpressed, with the opposition Scottish Conservatives saying Ms Sturgeon’s hopes for a referendum before 2021 were “absurd and divisive”.

Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour leader, accused the first minister of putting party interests first. “This is about Nicola Sturgeon trying to pacify her party members and back benchers ahead of the SNP’s conference,” he said.

Ms Sturgeon also promised to set up a citizens’ assembly of a “representative cross section of Scotland, with an independent chair” to consider what kind of country they wanted and how it could overcome challenges such as Brexit. 

Additional reporting by Laura Hughes in London

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