Nicola Sturgeon signals Scotland referendum could be held after Brexit
Nicola Sturgeon has indicated she could delay a fresh referendum until after Brexit, in the hope of a deal with Theresa May on its timing.
After in March 2019, the first minister signalled she could stage it after that date if more time was needed to confirm the precise terms for the UK’s Brexit deal.
In a statement issued on Tuesday after the Scottish government cabinet formally endorsed her decision to stage a second referendum, Sturgeon insisted there was a “cast-iron mandate” for the poll.
She added: “And the vote must take place within a timeframe to allow an informed choice to be made – when the terms of Brexit are clear but before the UK leaves the , or shortly afterwards.”
That phrase could defuse a looming constitutional battle between Sturgeon and the prime minister over the exact timing of the new referendum after .
The Scottish government needs Westminster to issue a section 30 order giving Holyrood the legal authority to stage a referendum, leading then to formal talks between both governments on the timing of the vote. That process is expected to lead to a repeat of the Edinburgh agreement in 2012 setting up the first independence referendum. The Electoral Commission will then advise on the correct question to ask, with Holyrood deciding on who will be able to vote.
If the talks are completed and signed by March 2019 –within the two-year timescale set out by the Lisbon treaty – that would still meet Sturgeon’s demand for Scotland’s referendum to be held by spring 2019.
Sturgeon also faces a complex political challenge deciding whether to propose full EU membership or the “Norway option”, where joins the European free trade area to gain full single market access, without having EU control over fisheries and farming.
The first minister has refused to say which policy she would offer at the referendum, leading Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, to claim Sturgeon’s plans were unravelling.
“The SNP is trying to have it both ways,” Davidson said. “It is demanding a referendum because of our decision to leave the European Union. But, in order to keep leave voters on board, it won’t say whether Scotland would seek to get back in.”
With support for independence neck and neck with staying in the UK, successive opinion polls suggest many Scottish voters oppose full EU membership, which could involve eventually joining the euro.
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, whose members are vocal critics of EU membership, will oppose independence if that leads Scotland to joining the common fisheries policy.
Meanwhile the Spanish foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, said Spain would oppose any attempt to give Scotland a special transitional deal or unique fast-track membership. That suggests Scotland would find it easier to rejoin the EU if it did so once Brexit and its independence from the UK were both legally agreed.
Wrong-footed by Sturgeon’s detailed referendum announcement on Monday, May is yet to set out her government’s stance on its timing but is expected to insist it cannot be held before the UK completes the article 50 process.
In her post-cabinet statement, Sturgeon confirmed she would seek the Scottish parliament’s agreement next Tuesday to ask Westminster for legal authority to stage the referendum under a section 30 order. A final vote, which the SNP expects to win with support from the Scottish Greens by a very narrow margin, will be held after two days of debate.
She warned that any final decision on timing would be made by Holyrood, and warned against any attempt by the UK government to force its hand. In reality, the Scottish government would control that vote at Holyrood, allowing Sturgeon to negotiate with May.
“It should be up to the Scottish parliament to determine the referendum’s timing, franchise and the question, which of course will be open to independent scrutiny and testing as it was last time,” she said.
“[There] should be no strings attached, no blocking mechanisms applied and no Downing Street diktat. Scotland’s referendum must be made in Scotland.”
Sturgeon added a similar but more subtle caveat on the referendum’s timing during her on Monday. She said Scottish voters should have a real choice [and] that choice must be offered between the autumn of next year, 2018, and the spring of 2019.”
But that was qualified when she also said: “If the UK leaves the EU without Scotland indicating beforehand – or at least within a short time after it – that we want a different relationship, we could face a lengthy period outside not just the EU but also the single market. That could make the task of negotiating a different future much more difficult.”
Sturgeon’s spokesman confirmed she could move the date. “Clearly we want it to be before [Brexit] but as the first minister said at Bute House yesterday her formulation was before or shortly thereafter, to enable people to make the choice when there’s a clear distinction – two quite clear and specific propositions to be weighed up against each other.”