Sturgeon offers to shelve independence vote in return for soft Brexit

Scotland’s first minister would take quick referendum off table if UK wins favourable deal with EU and access to single market

A man wrapped in a hybrid Scottish and EU flag



Sturgeon’s offer to put independence aside will be seen as a clear attempt to strengthen her case for a second vote if there is a hard Brexit.
Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Nicola Sturgeon has said she would take a quick Scottish independence referendum off the table if the UK wins a favourable, soft Brexit deal with the EU.

In an apparent retreat from her claims last year that a fast second referendum was now “highly likely”, the first minister said her emphasis now was on securing a good deal for the Scottish parliament and open access to the single market.

“I’m putting these options forward in good faith,” Sturgeon told BBC Radio Scotland. “I’m deliberately saying put my preferred option [of Scottish independence in the EU] to one side and asking people if we can find a consensus and compromise option.”

The first minister was asked whether she was now saying that a soft Brexit deal meant a quick second independence referendum was no longer “highly likely” – the phrase she used immediately after June’s Brexit vote showed that Scotland wanted to remain in the EU. Sturgeon implied the answer was yes.

While insisting she still believed independence would come in time, she said: “In the timescale of Brexit, which is what we’re talking about just now, what I have just said is if we can find a way of protecting Scotland’s economic interests and protecting our democratic interests in the UK, then I’m up for trying to do that.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon


First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

Sturgeon published a detailed paper just before Christmas asserting that Scotland could secure greater, preferential access to the EU single market than the rest of the UK, and protect free movement, by becoming part of the European Free Trade Association and then the European Economic Area, like Norway.

The Scottish parliament should also be given significant new powers in areas currently controlled by the EU such as fisheries, agriculture, environmental protection and export policy, when they are repatriated after the UK leaves the EU.

Sturgeon’s offer to put independence temporarily aside in favour of a compromise deal will be seen as a clear attempt to strengthen her case for a second vote if there is a hard Brexit, where the UK is kept out of the single market.

EU leaders and diplomats have said this week’s turmoil over the resignation of the UK ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, suggested a hard Brexit was now far more likely.

Soon after a BBC interview on Friday, Sturgeon tweeted the front page of the pro-independence paper the National quoting the Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg, stating that the UK faces “a very hard Brexit”.

PressData_Politics
(@PD_Politics)

.@ScotNational front page | UK faces a ‘very hard Brexit’ https://t.co/kw6xyh6bDL pic.twitter.com/hM3Gwuul7T

January 6, 2017

In a further tweet referring to Theresa May, Sturgeon said her quest for an amicable solution meant the “ball is in the PM’s court”.

Nicola Sturgeon
(@NicolaSturgeon)

Reasonable assessment. But @ScotGovFM compromise proposals for so-called ‘soft’ Brexit put forward in good faith. Ball is in PM court. https://t.co/gQXYjNRbda

January 6, 2017

Her repositioning also raises the question of what type of Brexit deal will satisfy Sturgeon and separately, Scotland’s voters, many of whom could reluctantly accept a far more powerful Scottish parliament within the UK.

Constitutional experts say that it will be impossible for Scotland to have separate, preferential access to the single market and free movement without the rest of the UK included, despite Sturgeon’s stance.

However, all Scottish parties are putting the UK government under increasing pressure to greatly strengthen Holyrood’s powers, as a form of Brexit dividend, in part to dilute demands for a second independence vote.

On Thursday, Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, warned that Brexit put the future of the UK in “terrible peril” because it threatened to bolster demand for independence. She said defending the cohesion of the UK was now the biggest challenge for 2017.

Her critics will argue Sturgeon’s apparent retreat reflects political reality. There is little evidence of strong popular support for a quick second referendum: a Scottish National party drive to contact 2 million voters before Christmas appears to have flopped.

Recent opinion polls have shown a majority of Scottish voters now oppose a quick second vote, including a third of SNP supporters, after a short-lived surge in support for a fast rerun after the Brexit vote in June.

Setting aside the question of timing, the latest TNS poll in the Herald put overall support for leaving the UK at 45.5% (excluding don’t knows), the same level as the yes vote in the 2014 independence referendum.

While the UK’s departure from the EU would satisfy a key test set by Sturgeon for a second independence vote – that of a material change in Scotland’s constitutional status – her most important test – that of meeting popular demand – has not yet been met.

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative party leader, said: “The first minister knows that if another referendum on independence was called tomorrow, she’d lose. Polls show fewer and fewer Scots agree with her separation obsession, and support for the question being asked again has collapsed.”

Sturgeon’s advisers accept that voters might also shy away from taking further risks given the election of Donald Trump as the next US president and that greater global instability could dampen support for a quick independence vote.

However, they also point out that they have not yet started a pro-independence campaign and argue that 45% backing for independence puts them in a far stronger position than in 2012, when the yes campaign began with support at 35%.

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