LONDON – Prime Minister Theresa May rejected Scotland’s bid to hold a referendum on independence before the U.K. leaves the European Union, the latest twist in the increasingly acrimonious fight over Brexit with the nationalist government in Edinburgh.
While not ruling one out eventually, May’s team said they would not even discuss a new referendum at a time when the focus was on getting the best Brexit deal for the whole U.K. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Monday demanded the power to call a plebiscite by spring 2019 on whether Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU, should break away.
“My message is very clear: now is not the time,” May said in an interview with ITV News in London on Thursday. Scots shouldn’t have to vote on independence before Brexit is settled, May said. “They would be being asked to make a crucial decision without the information they need.”
Sturgeon responded by saying that stance was “undemocratic and unsustainable” and she would push ahead with the legal process to demand the right to hold a referendum. “History may look back on today and see it as the day the fate of the union was sealed,” Sturgeon told BBC Scotland.
Both leaders face a delicate balancing act. For May, it raises the prospect of two divorces, and a second independence referendum would stretch the government at a critical time, leaving her battling to protect the three-centuries-old union with Scotland while trying to reach a Brexit deal. For Sturgeon, the gamble is that by making demands on the U.K. and being rebuffed, she may win more public support for her independence campaign.
“What you have now is Sturgeon maneuvering to get May to offend as many Scots as possible and May trying to maneuver to offend as few as possible,” said Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the London-based Centre For European Reform.
The Conservative Party that May leads is historically unpopular in Scotland and Sturgeon has been milking that. The U.K. government could inflame nationalism if she is seen to be denying the Scottish people the right to determine their own future. May’s rejection could hardly have come at a better time for Sturgeon, who will be rallying the party faithful at the Scottish National Party conference in Aberdeen on Friday.
In the 2014 independence referendum, 55 percent voted against a secession and 45 percent voted in favor of it. Polls have broadly stayed there since then, and May has used that to bolster her case. Sturgeon cited Brexit and May’s commitment to pull Britain out of the European single market against Scotland’s will as game changers that justify a new independence referendum so soon after the last one.
“The idea you can kick it into enough long grass to get rid of it also seems quite unlikely,” said Anthony Wells, research director at pollster YouGov Plc. “I can only assume this is part of the game of negotiating and agreeing the timetable. I don’t think Theresa May can get away without doing it, so all she’s got is when do I do it.”
Sturgeon plans to seek the authority of the Scottish Parliament next week to agree with May’s U.K. government on a so-called Section 30 order granting “the ability of Scotland to legislate for an independence referendum.” The U.K. cabinet minister responsible for the nation of 5.4 million, David Mundell, went further than May in ruling out a referendum on Sturgeon’s timetable, saying that even if a formal request comes from the Scottish Parliament, it would be thrown out.
“We will not be entering into discussions or negotiations about a Section 30 agreement and any request at this time will be declined,” Mundell told a news conference.
Sturgeon has said a vote between the fall of 2018 and spring 2019 would give Scots enough time to assess the pros and cons of Brexit. She said her administration isn’t proposing a referendum “now,” but rather “when the terms of Brexit are clear and before it is too late to choose an alternative path.”
The argument over timing and what’s known or unknown echoes the Brexit referendum, according to Nicola McEwen, professor of politics at Edinburgh University.
“The vote took place despite the lack of vision of what Brexit would entail, and the withdrawal will take place without a further decision on the terms,” she said. “This is an illustration of where the prime minister is having to use contradictory arguments to confront two different types of challenge — and perhaps indicative of why she’d really rather deal with one at a time. Politics may not, however, give her that luxury.”