Nicola Sturgeon has backed her demand for another independence referendum with a call for disaffected citizens in the rest of the UK to move to Scotland and a promise of continued immigration from Europe.
In a speech closing her Scottish National party’s spring conference, Scotland’s first minister dismissed UK prime minister Theresa May’s rejection of a second referendum, saying that while timing could be discussed, a plebiscite would certainly happen.
To a rapturous reception from 2,000 SNP members in a packed Aberdeen hall, Ms Sturgeon drew a sharp contrast between a “rightwing, Brexit-obsessed” UK government and a Scotland she portrayed as open and welcoming.
Scotland would be a magnet for talent and investment if it chose to remain within the EU single market, she said, issuing an “open invitation” to people from across the UK.
“Scotland is not full up. If you are as appalled as we are at the path this Westminster government is taking, come and join us,” the first minister said.
Scotland would also encourage the “best and brightest” from across Europe to make their home there, she said.
Ms Sturgeon’s comments highlight the very different tone of political debate over immigration in Scotland, where population growth is much lower than in England. However, they will dismay substantial minority of Scots who say the number of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere is already too high.
The SNP conference capped an extraordinary week in which Ms Sturgeon on Monday demanded a second referendum on independence only for Mrs May to three days later rule such a plebiscite out until 2019 at least and possibly much later.
Let the prime minister be in no doubt, the will of our parliament must and will prevail
The first minister said that refusing a formal request for Westminster approval of a referendum would “shatter any notion” that the UK was a partnership of equals but that Mrs May had time to reconsider.
“If her concern is timing then — within reason — I am happy to have that discussion, but let the prime minister be in no doubt, the will of our parliament must and will prevail,” she said.
Mrs May insists that it would be unfair on voters in Scotland to ask them to decide their constitutional future so soon after the 2014 referendum and before the UK has had a chance to establish its post-Brexit relationship with the EU.
Colleagues of the prime minister have introduced tough new conditions for UK approval of any new plebiscite, saying there should first be cross-party consensus on such a vote in the Scottish parliament and a clear public majority for independence.
“This is the week that Nicola Sturgeon gave up being First Minister and instead put her obsession with independence before the day job,” said Jackson Carlaw, Scottish Tory deputy leader.
“We now have a part-time first minister claiming to speak for Scotland, but in fact pursuing her own narrow agenda to the detriment and against the wishes of ordinary Scots,” Mr Carlaw said.
The constitutional stand-off over whether and when a second referendum can be held has prompted some senior SNP figures to consider the possibility of putting aside the precedent set in 2014 and holding a referendum without Westminster approval.
Ms Sturgeon has been careful not to rule out such a move, but a spokesperson for the first minister said she was committed to pursuing a vote that is “legal and constitutional exactly on the lines of the 2014 vote”.
The first minister promised to be honest about the economic challenges an independent Scotland would face and said debate should be conducted with “courtesy, understanding and respect”.
However, she made clear that any commitment to courtesy had limits, dismissing the Labour party a few minutes later as an “embarrassing shambles”.
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