At Tory Gathering, May Pledges Closer Union in Slap to Sturgeon

  • Premier tries to fend off second Scottish independence bid
  • U.K. must focus ‘efforts and energies’ on Brexit deal: May

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Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to forge a closer union within the U.K. in a rebuke to Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, who started the week calling for a new independence referendum for Scotland.

May unveiled on Friday a “plan for Britain” covering every region in the country in a speech to her party at the Conservative Spring Conference in the Welsh capital, Cardiff. May was applauded as she repeated she would give notice to the European Union in the next two weeks that the U.K. is leaving it for good.

Theresa May in Cardiff, on March 17.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Brexit “means forging a more united nation, as we put the values of fairness, responsibility and citizenship at the heart of everything we do, and we strengthen the bonds of our precious union too,” she told Tory activists.

A day after rejecting Sturgeon’s appeal by saying “now is not the time” for another plebiscite in Scotland, the premier stressed her commitment to the union between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Aberdeen, where the SNP’s own gathering got under way Friday, Deputy Leader Angus Robertson said May has no right to deny Scotland another referendum.

May is trying to shake off the latest Scottish threat just days before she’s expected to trigger two years of complex negotiations to extract the U.K. from the EU. The government wants to avoid having to spread its resources between defending the integrity of the three-centuries-old union and securing a Brexit deal that’s as advantageous as possible to Britain.

‘Constitutional Artefact’

May said Britain is more than just a “constitutional artefact”

Sturgeon’s argument has been that Scotland may have no choice but to go its own way if the Scottish Parliament is to keep its existing powers over such things as health care, education and some taxation. Powers were transferred to the legislature in 1999 as part of a process known as devolution. An ever-closer union, as May suggests, would run counter to that.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May speaks about the country’s future following its decision to leave the European Union.

Source: ITN Pool

“Let there be no doubt, Scotland will have its referendum and the people of this country will have their choice, they will not be denied their say,” Robertson told SNP delegates. “No United Kingdom prime minister should dare to stand in the way of Scotland’s democracy.”

If May begins formal divorce proceedings by the end of the month, as promised, the U.K. would leave the bloc by the end of March 2019 under the timeline laid out in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. The SNP wants a vote on independence “when the terms of Brexit are known -- and not before,” Roberston said. “We will give the people the choice over the direction Scotland should take before it’s too late to change course.”

Escalation

Friday’s speeches mark an escalation in the fight between the nationalist-led administration in Edinburgh and May’s government in London.

Sturgeon accuses May of failing to consider Scotland’s interests in preparing her Brexit strategy. The prime minister has vowed to take Britain out of the EU’s single market, while Sturgeon would like Scotland to remain inside. Scotland voted to remain in the EU in last year’s referendum, and faces being pulled out of the bloc because of the U.K.-wide vote to leave.

The nationalists are adamant the timing is theirs to dictate and Sturgeon will hope the standoff gives independence a boost in the polls. The Scottish Parliament is due to vote next week on setting off the legal process to gain the right to hold the plebiscite.

Read More: U.K.’s Brexit Fight With Scotland Escalates

The SNP conference in Scotland’s oil capital is likely to be a display of defiance. The debate over independence and full control of the economy, North Sea energy reserves and sovereignty has been at the forefront of Scottish politics as the nationalists have grown as a political force over the past decade.

Robertson leads the SNP at Westminster, where it’s the third-largest party. Sturgeon, the SNP leader, is scheduled to give her keynote speech on Saturday.

It would be “a democratic outrage” for May to reject any request from the Scottish Parliament for a referendum, Deputy First Minister of Scotland John Swinney said in an interview with BBC Radio on Friday.

Sturgeon’s office said the legislature is to be asked to back a request for a referendum on Tuesday and will vote on Wednesday. The plan is for a “legally binding referendum” under Section 30 of the Scotland Act, her chief of staff Liz Lloyd told reporters when asked if the first minister would hold one without approval from Westminster.

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