Nicola Sturgeon has accused Theresa May of sealing the fate of the United Kingdom after the prime minister rejected her demand for a second Scottish independence referendum before the Brexit talks conclude.
The first minister said May’s stance was “completely outrageous and unacceptable”, hours after the prime minister had insisted that “now is not the time” for the referendum that the SNP had hoped to stage between autumn 2019 and spring 2019.
Sturgeon said on Thursday: “It’s an argument for independence, really, in a nutshell, that Westminster thinks it has got the right to block the democratically elected mandate of the Scottish government and the majority in the Scottish parliament. History may look back on today and see it as the day the fate of the union was sealed.”
She insisted she would press on with plans for a vote at the Scottish parliament next week seeking its approval to request the legal power from Westminster to stage the referendum on Holyrood’s terms – a vote she is expected to narrowly win with Scottish Green party support.
But May said earlier that the Tories would not allow any discussion of the referendum until the UK’s Brexit deal had been signed and Scottish voters had time to weigh it up, implying any referendum may not happen until 2021 at the earliest. “To look at the issue at this time would be unfair, because people wouldn’t have the necessary information to make such a crucial decision,” May added.
The Tory gamble is driven by a series of opinion polls showing that a large majority of Scottish voters do not want a referendum before Brexit, even though support for independence has jumped from about 45% to nearly 50% after May spelt out her plans in January for a hard Brexit.
May’s blunt intervention is likely to goad SNP activists into an even more energetic independence campaign this summer as they seek to build support for a referendum, starting at the SNP’s spring conference this weekend.
Sturgeon predicted that May’s position would soon prove to be politically unsustainable. “This is not the Iron Lady – this is someone whose government is in chaos, chopping and changing all of the time,” she told BBC Reporting Scotland.
UK government sources indicated on Wednesday that May would not formally respond to Sturgeon’s timetable before the first minister had officially requested legal authority for a referendum, under section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, after next week’s Holyrood vote on the proposal.
But that changed unexpectedly on Thursday. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, and David Mundell, the UK government’s Scottish secretary, were forced to deny that May had been persuaded to make her statement on the eve of the SNP conference to provoke its activists into taking a far more partisan stance.
Mundell argued it would be discourteous to Holyrood if the UK government failed to make clear before next week’s vote in the Scottish parliament that it had already decided to reject outright Sturgeon’s timetable.
Davidson and Mundell said that lack of appetite for an early referendum and the fact that Holyrood’s five parties were split on the issue undermined Sturgeon’s claim of a mandate.
The SNP is currently in a minority government at Holyrood but had a substantial majority in 2012, when all five parties agreed that staging the first referendum in 2014 was justified. That was “a fundamental reason why now is not the right time to take Scotland back to the precipice”, Davidson said.
“And that is because there is no clear political or public consent for this to take place. The country – and our parliament – is divided not over just the question of independence, but over whether we should even hold a referendum or not.”
Davidson’s spokesman confirmed the Tories could reverse their position if there was a substantial and sustained surge in support for independence and in demands for a referendum in the next two years.
There were signs too of further movement on timing from Sturgeon’s government. Pressed after May’s statement about the first minister’s hint earlier this week she could agree to the referendum shortly after Brexit, her spokesman said Sturgeon believed she had the right to stage it until the next Scottish elections in May 2021.
He insisted Sturgeon would continue to fight for the vote to be held by spring 2019, but added that her mandate for a referendum, on the grounds that Scotland was being taken out of the EU against its will, lasted until those elections.
“The first minister has made clear her preferred timescale and that is the timescale we’re working to,” he said. But asked if that meant a referendum could be held by 2021, he said yes, adding: “The mandate is clear – the mandate is for the parliamentary term.”
May’s decision to resist agreeing a referendum until well after Brexit in 2019 implies it could not be held until 2021 at the earliest. It would take up to a year for both governments and both parliaments to agree and authorise a legally constituted referendum. The Electoral Commission would need up to six months to decide on a question, with another six months needed for the campaign.
The prime minister is to reinforce her claims that the UK will prosper after Brexit on Friday in a speech to the Conservative Spring forum in Cardiff, emphasising her attachment to “our precious, precious union” as she launches what she calls her “Plan for Britain”.
May will describe the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK as “more than just a constitutional artefact” by arguing “it is a union between all of our citizens, whoever we are and wherever we’re from”.
As she prepares to invoke article 50, the formal process for leaving the EU, by the end of the month, May will insist it is essential the UK strikes the right deal. “We have pulled together as one and succeeded together. We are four nations, but at heart we are one people.”