Nicola Sturgeon has called for a second Scottish independence referendum to be held by spring 2019, throwing the constitutional future of the UK into question just as it begins the process of leaving the EU.
In a speech at her official residence in Edinburgh, the first minister accused Theresa May of having “not moved an inch” in response to calls for a special deal on Brexit for Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly last year to remain in the EU.
“All of our efforts at compromise have been met with a brick wall of intransigence,” Ms Sturgeon said, adding that Brexit threatened the Scottish economy and diverse society.
“Scotland stands at a hugely important crossroads,” she said. “What is at stake is the kind of country we will become.”
The Scottish Conservatives denounced Ms Sturgeon’s call for another vote on independence so soon after a 2014 plebiscite that her Scottish National party had billed as a “once in a generation” event.
“People have said time and again they do not want to go back to the division of a second referendum,” said Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative leader. “This is utterly irresponsible and has been taken by the first minister purely for partisan political reasons.”
Ms Sturgeon said she would seek the Scottish parliament’s approval next week to negotiate with the UK government for a “Section 30” order granting legal authority to hold a referendum between autumn 2018 and spring 2019.
The “shape of the UK’s Brexit deal” would be clear by then, and voters would have to be able to decide on independence before the UK left the EU or “at least within a short time after” in order to avoid spending a lengthy period outside the EU single market, she said.
The SNP is a minority government but the Scottish Greens immediately backed the call for a second referendum, ensuring it will win approval at the Holyrood parliament.
Under the precedent set in 2014, the UK parliament has the final say on whether a referendum is held.
A Downing Street spokesman said on Monday morning that another referendum would be divisive and “cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time”, but would not immediately comment on whether the UK government would approve one or on what terms.
Later on Monday, Mrs May accused the SNP of having “tunnel vision” and “playing politics” with the future of the UK.
“The tunnel vision that the SNP has shown today is deeply regrettable,” she said. “It sets Scotland on a course for more uncertainty and division, creating huge uncertainty. And this is at a time when the evidence is that the Scottish people, the majority of the Scottish people, do not want a second independence referendum.
“So 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,” Mrs May added. “Politics is not a game.”
The FT reported last week that UK ministers viewed a second referendum as “inevitable”, but are preparing to try to delay any ballot until after Britain leaves the EU.
Ms Sturgeon said it would be “unacceptable” for the UK government to block a vote or delay it.
“I think there would be a rather furious reaction from many people in Scotland, not just the Scottish government, if that was the position the UK government decided to take,” she said.
The first minister also made clear that she expected the Scottish parliament to be able to propose the referendum question and decide who gets to vote.
She suggested both would be modelled on the 2014 vote, which had a Yes-No question and allowed EU citizens resident in Scotland to vote but not expatriate Scots — both approaches that would be highly controversial.
Scotland voted 62/38 against Brexit last June, and the SNP says that it has a clear mandate for an independence referendum since it won election on a manifesto that claimed the right to hold one if Scotland was taken out of the EU against its will.
Ms Sturgeon left open the possibility that a UK government compromise on Scotland’s Brexit terms could avert a referendum, but held out little hope.
“I cannot pretend to the Scottish people that a compromise agreement looks remotely likely, given the hardline response from the prime minister so far,” she said.
The UK government has made no formal response to the Scottish government’s call last year for a deal to allow Scotland continued membership of the EU single market.
The European Commission declined to comment on Ms Sturgeon’s proposals for Scotland on Monday. But officials confirmed that the Commission would still apply the so-called “Barroso doctrine” in the event of the UK leaving the EU.
In the run-up to the first Scottish independence referendum in 2014, Jose Manuel Barroso, the then Commission president, said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the EU.
“In case there is a new country, a new state, coming out of a current member state it will have to apply [to become a member],” he said at the time.
In 2014, voters in Scotland rejected independence by 55 per cent to 44 per cent, but recent polls suggest the gap may have narrowed. An Ipsos Mori poll released last week put the two sides level at 50/50, while a BMG survey for The Herald published on Monday put support for staying in the union ahead by 52 per cent to 48.
The pound rose after Ms Sturgeon formally laid the groundwork for a second independence referendum, the first in a series of events this week likely to test investors’ sterling appetite.
The pound began the day climbing 0.6 per cent to $1.2239 after Ms Sturgeon tweeted her intention to make an important speech.
Some sterling watchers view a second referendum as bullish for the pound. Referendum rumours last week prompted Morgan Stanley forex strategist Hans Redeker to say that such an event “may bring the government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations further from ‘hard Brexit’ and towards the middle ground to accommodate Scottish views”.