Theresa May has made it clear that she will block a second Scottish independence referendum before Britain leaves the European Union, and her government will refuse to enter into any discussions about it with Scotland's first minister.
The Scottish parliament is expected to approve a second independence referendum next week, but a binding vote cannot go ahead without the backing of the British government at Westminster.
"As we embark on the process of negotiating a new relationship with the European Union, I'm going to be fighting for every person, every family, every business across the whole of the United Kingdom. That's my focus, and I think it should be the focus of us all," Ms May told ITV News.
“When the SNP government say that it’s the time to start talking about a new independence referendum, I say that just at this point, all our energies should be focused on our negotiations with the European Union about our future relationship.”
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, said on Monday that the vote should be held between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, after the shape of a Brexit deal becomes clear but before Britain leaves the EU. The prime minister responded that such a timeframe would be "unfair" because people would not have enough information to make the decision.
Ms Sturgeon said it would be undemocratic for Westminster to ignore a vote by the Scottish parliament to call a second independence referendum.
“The Scottish government has a cast-iron democratic mandate to offer people a choice, and that mandate must be fulfilled,” she said. “Any bid by the UK government to block the people of Scotland from making a choice will be untenable, undemocratic and totally unsustainable – and clearly shows that the UK government recognises it is out of step with the Scottish people.”
The 1998 Scotland Act, which created the Scottish parliament, reserved some powers to Westminster, including the constitution. But under section 30 of the Act, Westminster can issue an order in council temporarily devolving power to Scotland to authorise a binding independence referendum.
On Thursday, Ms May’s Scottish secretary said the government would refuse to enter into any discussions about such an order.
"The proposal brought forward is not fair; people will not be able to make an informed choice," said David Mundell. "Neither is there public or political support for such a referendum. Therefore, we will not be entering into discussions or negotiations about a section 30 agreement and any request at this time will be declined."
The Conservative government’s hardline approach has put it on a constitutional collision course with Ms Sturgeon’s government in Edinburgh. Ms May can draw comfort from opinion polls, which suggest that, although support for independence is higher than ever, a smaller minority of Scots believe the time is right for another referendum.
Smack of arrogance
Ms Sturgeon and her allies are convinced, however, that after the Scottish parliament votes for a referendum next week, Ms May’s flat rejection of a vote will smack of the arrogance and high-handedness many Scots dislike about the Conservatives.
Former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond warned the prime minister that her “finger-wagging” would backfire spectacularly and propel more voters towards independence.
“It goes far beyond people’s choices on independence – it’s when Scotland as a nation has the right to determine its own future,” he said. “And there’s many people who may have questions about Scottish independence, but ask them the fundamental question: ‘Does Scotland have the right to decide?’
“And, of course, the answer is yes. Because anything else undermines Scottish nationhood, and no self-respecting Scot is going to take a Westminster prime minister doing that.”