Scotland's Sturgeon hints at legal move if independence vote blocked

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gives an update on COVID-19 restrictions, in Edinburgh

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) - Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Monday ramped up her calls for a new Scottish independence referendum, declining to rule out another vote next year and hinting she might go to court for permission to hold one if London tried to block it.

Scots rejected independence in 2014 but Brexit and the British government's handling of the COVID-19 crisis have bolstered support for secession, with most polls showing a majority now favour breaking away from the United Kingdom.

Elections to Scotland's devolved parliament will take place in May, and Sturgeon's Scottish National Party (SNP) is expected to perform strongly, which it argues would be a mandate for another independence referendum.

In a speech to the SNP's virtual conference, Sturgeon said she wanted Scots to back the call to hold another vote "for a legal independence referendum to be held in the early part of the new parliament".

Speaking in earlier interviews, she declined to rule out a possible vote in autumn 2021. "I'm not ruling anything out, I'm not ruling anything in," she told Sky News.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the 2014 vote in which Scots voted 55-45 percent against independence was a decisive once in a generation event and his government says there should not be another referendum in the near future.

London must give permission for any plebiscite, and in remarks to BBC radio Sturgeon declined to preclude taking legal action should Johnson block another vote, saying the question of whether the Scottish Parliament had the power to call a referendum had never been determined in the courts.

"That inalienable right of self-determination cannot, and will not, be subject to a Westminster veto," she said in her conference speech.

"We are seeing across the Atlantic, what happens to those who try to hold back the tide of democracy. They get swept away."

Polls show Johnson is unpopular in Scotland and his recent comment that devolution of powers to Edinburgh was a "disaster" was seen as playing into the independence movement's hands.a

Brexit is also a major issue as a clear majority of Scots voted to remain in European Union in a 2016 referendum, even as the United Kingdom as whole voted 52-48 to leave.

In the 2014 independence campaign, the British government had said that a "no" vote was the only way to ensure Scotland would stay in the EU.

Sturgeon said the question for Scots would be who they trusted to rebuild the country after the COVID pandemic, a Scottish government or "Boris Johnson’s band of Brexiteers".

"The short-term damage of leaving the EU will be severe," she said. "But the long-term term impact will be worse."

(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Sarah Young, William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)