Sturgeon hints at 'other ways' to hold new Scottish independence referendum

Severin Carrell Scotland editor
Nicola Sturgeon in a photobooth at the Scottish National party conference. She spoke about her plans to force Theresa May to compromise over an independence referendum. Photograph: Michal Wachucik/AFP/Getty Images

Nicola Sturgeon has hinted she had other ways to force Theresa May into agreeing a compromise over a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Speaking a day after May rejected her call for the power to hold a referendum in 18 months, the first minister said there were other options open to her if May continued to refuse to pass on the powers needed to stage a legally constituted poll.

Sturgeon repeatedly refused to rule out staging an unofficial referendum in a series of television interviews on Friday, telling ITV News: “I don’t think I should be getting into Plan Bs at this stage when I am putting forward a Plan A that has such a strong cast iron mandate.”

The most dramatic option open would be to trigger a snap Scottish parliament election by resigning as first minister, forcing Holyrood to dissolve at a crucial time during the UK’s Brexit talks with the EU.

Speaking to ITV at the Scottish National party’s spring conference, Sturgeon said she was focused only on winning a mandate from Holyrood next week authorising her to ask May formally for the authority to stage an official referendum.

When the prime minister rejects that request, Sturgeon will accuse May of undermining Scottish sovereignty on behalf of a government with no mandate in Scotland, in the hope of doubling popular support for a new referendum to force May into a U-turn.

Sturgeon told ITV News that if that gambit failed, “I have got various options that I would consider but with the greatest of respect I’m not going to share them with you right now. I will share them with the people of Scotland and the people of Scotland will have the right to know them once we are at that stage”.

Despite her refusal to openly rule it out, Sturgeon’s aides insisted afterwards she had no plans to stage a so-called indicative, unofficial referendum. While acknowledging a snap election was an option, her spokesman said: “We’re not planning to do that”, adding: “We are not in that space.”

In an interview with the BBC, Sturgeon made further overtures to May to work out an alternative timetable for the referendum. She was still keen to “work our way through” her disagreements with May, she said, arguing that they both agreed the referendum should not be held now.

The first minister said on Monday the vote had to be held between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, insisting it was essential it was held as close as possible to the Brexit deal being signed in March 2019.

With Scottish Conservative officials confirming May could have to authorise a referendum if Scottish public opinion demanded it, Sturgeon and her aides have also indicated she could be more flexible on dates.

“So what I’m saying today is she says it is not the right time for a referendum,” Sturgeon said told the BBC. “I actually agree with that. I am not proposing one now. We’ve set out when we think it would be right.

“She doesn’t agree with that, so let her set out when she thinks it might be right, and then let’s have that discussion. Who knows, we might be only a matter of weeks or months apart. So I’m up for continued discussions.”

Both staging an unofficial referendum and calling a snap election are fraught with difficulties and risk. It would be illegal for the Scottish parliament or the Scottish government to call a referendum without authority from Westminster.

It could also be challenged in the courts if Holyrood or government money was used to organise it. If the SNP or independence movement organise one itself, that would risk a mass boycott from no voters and a low turnout, undermining any claim to legitimacy.

The legislation setting up the Scottish parliament say its elections will be held every five years. Sturgeon could only trigger a snap election by resigning as first minister if she wanted to win an even larger or clearer mandate to demand a referendum.

The SNP would refuse to nominate a successor and hope the Scottish Green party, which holds the balance of power at Holyrood, would refuse to support a ruling coalition involving Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems able to take over.

But that is a highly risky route: voters could resent having a fresh election on a single issue such as a referendum and the UK government could still refuse to give its authorisation. Sturgeon’s spokesman said it could be pointless.

“What would be the point in seeking a mandate that we already have? On the basis that the UK government could turn round and say exactly the same as they’re saying now. Literally, what would be the point?”