Nicola Sturgeon has triggered a fresh constitutional battle over Scotland’s future after announcing plans to stage a second independence referendum within two years.
Accusing Theresa May of thwarting Scotland’s desire for a special deal with Europe, the first minister confirmed she plans to hold the vote between autumn 2018 and spring 2019 unless the UK government offers substantial last-minute concessions.
Sturgeon said the prime minister’s refusal to discuss full Scottish access to the single market and to threaten heavy restrictions on the new powers for Scotland after Brexit made a second referendum all but inevitable.
Any pretence that the UK was a partnership of equal nations was now dead, Sturgeon said, adding that there had been no attempt to inform the Scottish government that May could invoke article 50 as early as Tuesday.
“The UK government has not moved even an inch in pursuit of compromise and agreement,” Sturgeon said. “Our efforts at compromise have instead been met with a brick wall of intransigence.”
Buoyed by three successive opinion polls putting the yes vote nearly neck and neck with the no vote, Sturgeon’s challenge has dramatically increased the complexities and uncertainties of Brexit negotiations.
Sturgeon’s announcement effectively starts a two-year independence campaign that will overstretch the UK government and the civil service in Whitehall, threatening to undermine its negotiating capacity in Europe.
Acknowledging there was not yet majority support for independence and that challenging questions about leaving the UK remained unanswered, Sturgeon insisted she had to maximise Scotland’s chances of being able to control its future relationship with the EU by pressing for independence before Brexit was ratified by EU member states.
“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 with Europe, 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,” she said.
With opinion polls showing less than 40% of Scottish voters in favour of a new referendum before Brexit, Downing Street said it did not believe Sturgeon had the mandate for second vote.
“Only a little over two years ago people in Scotland voted decisively to remain part of our United Kingdom in a referendum which the Scottish government defined as a ‘once in a generation’ vote,” a spokesman said.
“Another referendum would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time.”
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said Sturgeon was guilty of political opportunism. She said: “Nicola Sturgeon has today given up acting as first minister for all of Scotland.
“The first minister’s proposal offers Scotland the worst of all worlds. Her timetable would force people to vote blind on the biggest political decision a country could face. This is utterly irresponsible and has been taken by the first minister purely for partisan political reasons.”
Questioned about the exact offer she would put to voters on an independent Scotland’s relationship with the EU, Sturgeon carefully avoided confirming she would call for full EU membership. She also sidestepped questions on which currency an independent Scotland might use, saying the answer would come “in good time”.
That suggests the Scottish government could eventually propose the so-called “Norway option” of joining the European free trade area instead of full EU membership if a large minority of pro-independence voters continued to show scepticism about full integration.
The latest opinion poll by BMG for the Herald, published on Monday, showed that 17% of those who voted both yes in 2014 and leave last year now want Scotland to stay in the UK, compared with only 8% of those who both voted no and remain switching to back independence now.
“What Scotland deserves, in the light of the material change of circumstances brought about by the Brexit vote, is the chance to decide our future in a fair, free and democratic way – and at a time when we are equipped with the facts we need,” Sturgeon said.
“It is, above all, about informed choice. We know that Brexit has made change inevitable. The option of ‘no change’ is no longer available.”
In a lengthy speech at Bute House, her official residence in Edinburgh, Sturgeon said her timetable for a new referendum will start with a vote in the Scottish parliament next week to win its approval to start talks on the basic terms of the referendum with the UK government.
Under the Scotland Act, Holyrood must seek the approval of Westminster under a section 30 order to allow it to hold a referendum. The 2014 independence referendum followed lengthy talks between the two governments that culminated in the Edinburgh agreement in October 2012.
The first minister expects to narrowly win that vote after the Scottish Greens said its six MSPs would support her, giving the Scottish National party the necessary majority at Holyrood.
Sturgeon will then table a referendum bill, paving the way for a vote by autumn 2019. She told reporters on Monday she expected the legislation to be agreed early in 2018.
Scottish Labour, the Lib Dems and Scottish Tories confirmed they would oppose Sturgeon’s motion at Holyrood next week.
Labour’s Kezia Dugdale said: “Scotland is already divided enough. We do not want to be divided again, but that is exactly what another independence referendum would do.” She said that 85% of people voted in 2014’s referendum with a clear vote against independence. Dugdale said a majority had rejected the “SNP’s false hopes and lies”.
Jeremy Corbyn said: “The 2014 Scottish independence referendum was billed as a once-in-a-generation event. The result was decisive and there is no appetite for another referendum.
“Labour believes it would be wrong to hold another so soon and Scottish Labour will oppose it in the Scottish parliament. If, however, the Scottish parliament votes for one, Labour will not block that democratic decision at Westminster.”
He said that if there was a referendum Labour would oppose independence as it was not in the interests of Scotland.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, said his party would oppose another referendum. “The SNP are risking taking Scotland out of both the UK and out of the EU. Being outside both would be the worst of all worlds for Scotland.”