Sturgeon Threatens Scottish Independence Vote Over Brexit

  • Scottish first minister closes conference with call to arms
  • Brexit plan puts U.K. on an isolationist course, she says

Nicola Sturgeon addresses the Scottish National Party Conference 2016 in Glasgow on Oct. 15.

Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon offered her strongest signal yet that she’ll call a vote on independence if she doesn’t like the Brexit terms that Prime Minister Theresa May negotiates.

Closing her Scottish National Party’s conference in Glasgow on Saturday, Sturgeon said she’s working on proposals to keep Scotland inside the European Union’s single market even if the rest of the U.K. leaves.

“If the Tory government rejects these efforts, if it insists on taking Scotland down a path that hurts our economy, costs jobs, lowers our living standards and damages our reputation as an open, welcoming, diverse country, then be in no doubt: Scotland must have the ability to choose a better future,” Sturgeon said to applause. “And I will make sure that Scotland gets that chance.”

While hinting at a rerun of 2014’s independence referendum is popular with supporters of a sovereign Scotland, the first minister’s rhetoric risks taking her to a place where it’s hard for her not to announce such a vote. Sturgeon’s overarching strategy has been not to go for independence again until opinion-poll evidence means she’s sure she can win the referendum.

Speaking to a meeting at the conference earlier on Saturday, External Affairs Minister Fiona Hyslop said the Scottish government’s tactics are aimed at putting political pressure on May “to go for what we call the least worst option in terms of relationships to the European Union.”

Hyslop warned, though, that it was impossible to predict how events will play out. “You can’t game-plan this,” she said. “You can’t determine exactly where we might be at some point in the future.”

The SNP leader used her speech to declare herself the main opposition to May’s Conservative government, setting a course that’s designed to show Scotland is moving in a different direction from the rest of the U.K.

Sturgeon argued that, after Britain’s vote to leave the EU, May’s Tories -- whom she dubbed “the Conservative and Separatist Party” -- are trying to take the U.K. in a fundamentally new direction, one with which Scotland doesn’t agree. Conservative ministers have insisted they are determined to end freedom of movement for workers with EU countries, a stance at odds with single-market membership.

‘Progressive, Internationalist’

“We are in a completely new era,” the first minister said. “And as the world around us changes, we must ensure that Scotland remains the progressive, internationalist, communitarian country that the majority of us living here want it be. The choice we face has never been so stark. The primary contest of ideas in our country is now between the SNP and the hard-right Tories.”

Sturgeon also announced moves to boost trade, including the setting up of an office in Berlin and a doubling of the number of Scottish investment-agency staff in mainland Europe, saying that “we need to tell our European friends that Scotland is open for business.”

Setting herself up for a battle with May will serve Sturgeon in future elections: The SNP’s pitch to voters is that it is best placed to fight for Scotland’s interests. But it will also serve the long-term goal of independence. 

Her best chance of winning a vote to break away from the U.K. rests in persuading her fellow Scots that their country is moving away from the path being taken by the rest of Britain. To justify calling another referendum soon, she also needs to successfully argue that the country’s situation has fundamentally changed since then.

English Votes

Brexit is an asset in both of those arguments: Scotland voted to stay in the EU, but as speaker after speaker has reminded the party conference, it is being taken out of the bloc by the votes of the English.

In 2014, Sturgeon said, “some who voted ‘No’ believed that staying in the U.K. offered greater economic security, a stronger voice in the world and a guaranteed place in the EU. But the future looks very different today. And make no mistake -- it is the opponents of independence, those on the right of the Tory party, intent on a hard Brexit, who have caused the insecurity and uncertainty.”

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