LONDON – Scotland’s leader said Monday that she will renew her push for independence from the United Kingdom next year, with the aim of holding a referendum on secession in 2023.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the independence campaign, stalled by the pandemic, “will resume in earnest” in spring 2022, “COVID permitting.”
“In the course of next year, I will initiate the process necessary to enable a referendum before the end of 2023,” Sturgeon told a conference of her Scottish National Party. “And just as importantly, our party will set out afresh the positive case for independence.”
Scottish voters opted to remain part of the United Kingdom by a margin of 55% to 45% in a 2014 referendum that was billed as a once-in-a-generation choice. But the SNP, which heads the Edinburgh-based Scottish government, argues that Britain’s departure from the European Union last year has radically changed the political and economic landscape.
In a 2016 referendum, 52% of U.K. voters backed leaving the EU, but 62% of Scots voted to remain, and Sturgeon argues that Scotland has been dragged out of the 27-nation bloc against its will.
Sturgeon faces a big obstacle to a new independence vote: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government must agree to a binding referendum. Johnson is adamant he won't consent, meaning any push for a new referendum could end up in the courts.
Sturgeon says the fact that voters in May elected an independence-supporting majority to the Scottish parliament — where the SNP governs with support from the pro-independence Green Party — makes an inarguable moral case for a new referendum.
But she acknowledges that independence supporters will have to make a new economic argument for breaking away from the U.K. In 2014, the SNP touted Scotland's North Sea oil wealth as a bulwark of future prosperity. The Scottish government now accepts that fossil fuels must be phased out to fight climate change, potentially leaving a big hole in Scotland’s finances, already battered by the pandemic.
Sturgeon told party members that her government would “be candid about the challenges the transition to independence will present, and set out clearly how we can and will overcome them.”
“And then, friends, we will ask the people to decide,” she said.