Scottish parliament votes for second independence referendum

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

Nicola Sturgeon has won a key Holyrood vote on her plans for a second independence referendum, triggering accusations from UK ministers that her demands are premature.

Sturgeon won by a 10-vote majority after the Scottish Greens backed her proposals to formally request from the UK government the powers to stage a fresh independence vote at around the time Britain leaves the EU, in spring 2019.

She is due to write to Theresa May later this week, asking for Westminster to hand Holyrood the temporary powers to stage the referendum under a section 30 order. She said she would avoid writing until the prime minister had invoked article 50 to trigger the Brexit process, which she is expected to do on Wednesday.

“It is not my intention to do so confrontationally, instead I only seek sensible discussion,” Sturgeon told MSPs.

The vote, which split the Scottish parliament cleanly between pro- and anti-independence parties, deepened the dispute between the two governments over both the need for and the timing of the vote.

David Mundell, the Scottish secretary, told the BBC the answer to Sturgeon’s request would be no. “We won’t be entering any negotiations at all until the Brexit process is complete,” he said. “Now is the time for the Scottish government to come together with the UK government, work together to get the best possible deal for the UK, and that means Scotland, as we leave the EU.”

Mundell rejected Sturgeon’s claims that May had told her the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU and its new trade deal would be clear in about 18 months. Sturgeon said that timeframe matched her preference for a referendum just as the UK quits the EU in March 2019.

He said it was too early to say how quickly a Brexit deal could be concluded or whether transitional arrangements were needed. “I don’t have a crystal ball as to how long these negotiations will take. We don’t recognise, for example, 18 months being a key point in the journey.”

A UK government spokeswoman said: “We have been joined together as one country for more than 300 years. We’ve worked together, we’ve prospered together, we’ve fought wars together, and we have a bright future. At this crucial time we should be working together, not pulling apart.”

The UK government’s stance is expected to harden further on Wednesday when David Davis, the Brexit secretary, will accuse Sturgeon of unfairly pressing for a referendum before she had a clear picture of the UK’s proposals for Scotland.

In a letter to the Scottish government responding to Sturgeon’s calls for a special EU deal for Scotland, Davis is expected to allege that her ministers have been systematically misleading voters about their talks on the terms of a post-Brexit deal.

UK government sources said Davis will challenge repeated claims by Sturgeon and Mike Russell, her Brexit minister, that no progress has been made on her proposals.

“The inconvenient truth is that there’s hardly any difference between the two governments about what is wanted from Brexit,” said one official.

He will point out that May has chaired two joint ministerial meetings with Sturgeon and other devolved government leaders, with four other joint ministerial summits having been held to discuss Brexit, alongside numerous bilateral ministerial meetings and behind the scenes talks between civil servants.

Davis is expected to argue that the UK government’s plans are very similar to Sturgeon’s proposals. Both governments want to preserve existing EU employment rights, protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK, protect university research funding and EU collaboration, and ensure the UK has full tariff-free access to the single market.

The Holyrood vote, which was greeted by cheers from a small group of nationalist activists outside the parliament, came five days after the original debate was suspended following the terror attack outside Westminster last Wednesday.

In reopening the debate, Sturgeon made clear she expected the UK to reject her call for a referendum. She said she planned to set out her alternative options to press for those powers later in April, after Holyrood returns from its Easter recess.

The first minister would not spell out those options but she is expected to press ahead with a bill setting out the terms for a referendum. There are suggestions she could also table a draft section 30 order, and ask for an indicative vote supporting it, to increase pressure on her opponents.

She told MSPs on Tuesday: “My argument is simply this: when the nature of the change which is made inevitable by Brexit becomes clear, that change should not be imposed upon us, we should have the right to decide the nature of that change.

“The people of Scotland should have the right to choose between Brexit or becoming an independent country able to chart our own course and create a true partnership of equals across these islands.”

Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats said Sturgeon was neglecting the parlous state of Scottish public services in her pursuit of an unpopular constitutional obsession.

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said Holyrood was gaining billions of pounds worth of new tax and welfare powers this weekend yet her government was presiding over failures in health services and schools. “It matters not the question; the answer is always independence,” Davidson said.

Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, said Holyrood should be discussing missed cancer referral times in the Scottish NHS, a damning report on child mental health services, or an abandoned pledge to cut working hours for junior doctors.

“Each of these issues constitute an individual scandal. Together they represent a complete abdication of responsibility. But we aren’t discussing any of those things … not when there is yet another independence debate to be had,” she said.

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