Brexit will pave the way for Scotland’s independence, Nicola Sturgeon insisted on Friday, as the first minister sought to cool frustration among some within her Scottish National party at her failure to deliver another referendum on leaving the UK.
Ms Sturgeon’s call for patience, made hours before the UK was to leave the EU, reflected increasing divisions within the SNP in the face of a constitutional stand-off with Boris Johnson’s Conservative UK government.
The first minister’s speech also highlighted the political gulf between London and Edinburgh, where officials prepared to symbolically mourn Brexit day by lighting government buildings in the EU’s blue and yellow and where the European flag will continue to fly outside the parliament at Holyrood.
Scottish voters said ‘No’ to independence by 55 per cent to 45 per cent in a 2014 referendum — but they opposed leaving the EU in 2016 by a more emphatic 62-38 per cent.
“At 11 o’clock tonight the UK that Scotland voted to be part of in 2014 ceases to exist,” Ms Sturgeon said. “It is not just legitimate, it is necessary for Scotland to have a choice about whether we want [to take] the path that leads us back into the heart of the European family of nations.”
A YouGov poll this week found 51 per cent of Scottish voters backed independence, compared with 49 against, the result in part of growing support for leaving the UK among opponents of Brexit. “Remainers are increasingly moving towards Yes,” YouGov said.
But the polling company also found a clear majority of Scottish voters did not support Ms Sturgeon’s demand for another independence referendum this year.
As the 11pm Brexit hour approached, hundreds of people gathered outside the Scottish parliament to mourn the UK’s departure. Many carried blue flags combining Scotland’s Saltire with the gold stars of Europe, others bore the “Yes” banners of the independence movement.
A bagpiper played the EU anthem “Ode to Joy” and some participants contrasted the mood with Brexit celebrations in England. “Up here, we are still European, right?” one speaker said, to cheers from the crowd.
While the first minister insisted a vote this year was still possible, she for the first time acknowledged that it might only come after Scottish parliamentary elections set for May 2021.
To allay growing impatience among independence campaigners, Ms Sturgeon promised her government would publish a series of papers “in the coming months” laying out a revised case for independence, playing the same role as a single document issued before the 2014 vote.
She said she would invite Scotland’s elected politicians, from MPs to council leaders, to endorse a “claim of right” for the Scottish parliament to be able to decide whether and when there should be another independence referendum.
And Ms Sturgeon said she would ask the Electoral Commission to re-test the 2014 referendum question — “should Scotland be an independent country?” — for possible use in another vote.
“If I thought there was an easier way, I would have taken it already,” she told supporters. “Stay focused, stay united, we are winning and we have got to stay the course.”
But more impatient SNP members and independence campaigners said Ms Sturgeon’s comments echoed previous repeated promises since the Brexit referendum of a renewed independence drive that had borne little fruit.
“I’m sorry but the [first minister’s] speech was something we all heard two years ago,” one SNP activist wrote in a tweet.
Stuart Campbell, author of the influential pro-independence blog Wings Over Scotland, was much harsher, calling Ms Sturgeon a “betrayer” whose party appeared uninterested in actually achieving independence.
“The current [SNP] leadership has not merely dropped the ball, but punctured it with a garden fork, set it on fire and kicked it onto next door’s roof,” Mr Campbell wrote.
The UK prime minister has ruled out approving another independence referendum but some senior SNP members think Scotland could press ahead with a vote anyway.
Ms Sturgeon insisted that the legality of any referendum needed to be beyond doubt, but noted that it had not been fully established whether the Scottish parliament had the power under current legislation to organise a consultative referendum.
“Should the UK government continue to deny Scotland’s right to choose, we may reach the point where it is necessary for this issue to be tested,” said Ms Sturgeon. “I am not ruling that out.”