May refuses to give ground on demand for Scottish referendum

Nicola Sturgeon describes meeting with prime minister as ‘cordial but frustrating’

British Prime Minister Theresa May presses her case for a strong union with a speech in Scotland to civil servants working in international aid. Video: Reuters

The Scottish parliament is on Tuesday expected to back a second independence referendum for Scotland but Theresa May on Monday said she would not budge in her opposition to holding such a vote before Britain leaves the European Union.

Speaking in Glasgow ahead of an hour-long meeting with first minister Nicola Sturgeon, the British prime minister said it would be "unfair" to call an independence referendum before Brexit negotiations were over.

“First of all, now is the point when we are triggering article 50, we’re starting negotiations for leaving the European Union. Now is the time when we should be pulling together, not hanging apart. Pulling together to make sure we get the best possible deal for the whole of the UK,” she said.

“Also I think it would be unfair on the people of Scotland to ask them to make a significant decision until all the facts were known, at a point where nobody knows what the situation is going to be. My position isn’t going to change, which is that now is not the time to be talking about a second independence referendum.”   Ms Sturgeon described her meeting with Ms May at a Glasgow hotel as “cordial” but frustrating, because of the prime minister’s refusal to seek a special Brexit deal for Scotland.


The first minister wants to hold a referendum between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, after the shape of a Brexit deal becomes clear but before Britain has actually left the EU. Her Scottish National Party and the Scottish Greens, who also back the proposal, between them command a majority in the Scottish parliament.

The Scottish government cannot, however, hold a binding referendum on independence without the approval of the government at Westminster.

Six tests

Ms May will on Wednesday trigger article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, starting two years of formal negotiations on Britain's withdrawal from the EU. Labour's shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer on Monday outlined six tests the final Brexit deal would have to pass for the party to support it.

He said the deal should ensure a strong, collaborative future relationship with the EU; it should deliver “the exact same benefits” Britain currently enjoys as part of the single market and the customs union; it should ensure the fair management of migration; it should defend workers’ rights and protections; it should protect national security and cross-border co-operation on crime; and it should deliver for all regions and nations of the UK.

Brexit secretary David Davis has claimed it would be possible to achieve the "exact same benefits" outside the single market and the customs union as it does today. Downing Street on Monday appeared to edge away from the commitment but Sir Keir said Labour would hold the government to it.

“The ‘exact same benefits’ is an exacting standard. But it is one the government has made. And it is one we will hold them to. Failure to deliver this deal will lie squarely at the government’s door,” he said.

The European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday warned that there was a real possibility that Britain could leave the EU without a deal, although he said such an outcome would be bad for both sides.

"It goes without saying that a no-deal scenario, while a distinct possibility, would have severe consequences for our people and our economies. It would undoubtedly leave the UK worse off," he wrote in the Financial Times.

Sir Keir said the government should stop flirting with the idea of crashing out of the EU without a deal and should make clear that such an outcome would be unacceptable.

“The prime minister should end this unnecessary uncertainty now by committing to establish appropriate transitional arrangements starting on March 29th, 2019 and lasting until a full and collaborative EU-UK treaty can be agreed,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times