May refuses Scotland vote to avoid battle on two fronts

Stand-off suits Sturgeon by fortifying Scotland’s sense of grievance towards England

British prime minster Theresa May: She said she would never allow the UK “to become looser and weaker, or our people to drift apart”. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

In Glasgow on Monday, Theresa May gave what sounded like a robust defence of the United Kingdom, declaring that, when England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland act together, they are an unstoppable force. She said she would never allow the union "to become looser and weaker, or our people to drift apart". And she restated her opposition to a second Scottish independence referendum until after Britain leaves the European Union.

The Scottish Parliament will today vote in favour of just such a referendum, to be held between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019, just before Brexit comes into being. Holyrood must then make a "Section 30" request to Westminster under the 1998 Scotland Act for permission to hold a binding vote. It will be refused.

May has not rejected outright the idea of a second independence referendum but says the time is not right, a position backed by Labour at Westminster. Still, the Scottish National Party will argue that London is ignoring a decision by Scotland's elected representatives and thwarting the country's right to self-determination.

The prime minister has concluded that it is better to endure such criticism than to fight a war on two fronts for the next two years, negotiating with the EU in Brussels and campaigning against independence in Scotland. Some Conservatives believe the prime minister will secure such a beneficial Brexit deal that it will diminish Scotland’s appetite for independence.


Sturgeon has much to gain from the stand-off, however, as it reinforces Scotland’s sense of grievance towards England. Throughout the Brexit negotiations, the first minister will be able to portray May’s every tilt towards a hard exit as a betrayal of Scotland’s interests and further evidence that post-Brexit Britain would be more English-centred and Conservative-dominated than before.

Policy shifts

Support for independence is currently running a little above the 45 per cent it won in the 2014 referendum and a delay will give Sturgeon an opportunity to build on that. It will also give the first minister time to navigate some policy shifts that could boost the case for independence, notably on Scotland's future relationship with Europe.

Until now, the SNP has argued for Scotland to remain a full member of the EU after the rest of the UK leaves, always an implausible proposition. If Scotland leaves the EU as part of the UK, the argument over whether it has to reapply for membership becomes moot.

Sturgeon and her allies have in any case been edging away in recent months from their demand for full EU membership, and flirting with joining the European Economic Area, like Norway. Over the next two years, this option could emerge as a more attractive one for Scotland, giving a newly independent state greater flexibility in shaping its relationship with the UK as well as the EU.