Scotland’s First Minister tight-lipped on alternatives if no second independence vote

Nicola Sturgeon said that latest polling showed rising support for independence and that Scotland “will then return to its rightful place” in the EU.

Nicola Sturgeon | Photo credit: Press Association

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

12 Feb 2020

Speaking in Brussels, Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon was asked by this website if there was a “Plan B” if, as expected, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues to refuse to allow another referendum on Scottish independence.

She told The Parliament Magazine, “This is an issue of democracy and if support for a referendum continues to rise as it has been doing, no amount of bluff and bluster from Boris Johnson will be able to stand in our way.”

She notably did not specify, though, what, if any, plans she or her party might have if such an eventuality did not happen.


In a keynote speech to an audience of EU officials and experts at the European Policy Centre (EPC), she said, “It is always wonderful to be in Brussels, but today it is also quite emotional as this is the first time I have been here - or indeed anywhere outside Scotland - since the UK left the European Union ten days ago.”

“Brexit was a sad matter for me, and for many people in Scotland and indeed across the UK.”

She said she was “especially struck” when she saw the last session of Parliament to be attended by MEPs from the UK, saying, “The sincerity, grace and goodwill of the speeches from people such as Guy Verhofstadt and Ursula von der Leyen was in itself impressive. But I think for many people – and perhaps particularly for many people in Scotland – the most moving moment of all was at the very end, when MEPs from all parties and all countries stood together to sing Auld Lang Syne.”

“That scene - one of solidarity and friendship - encapsulated many of the values the Scottish Government and many of the people in Scotland most cherish about the EU.”

“This is an issue of democracy and if support for a referendum continues to rise as it has been doing, no amount of bluff and bluster from Boris Johnson will be able to stand in our way” Nicola Sturgeon

She said hearing the words of Scottish poet Robert Burns also “reinforced the sense that Scotland has left a place where we belong – that we should still be participating in that chamber, rather than departing it.”

She said that on the same day, the Scottish Parliament voted to back a further referendum on Scottish independence, adding that she wanted to “make clear our desire to return to the European Parliament as an independent nation, comfortable – as EU members have to be – with the idea that independence, in the modern world, involves recognising and embracing our interdependence.”

She emphasised that 62 percent of voters in Scotland chose to stay in the EU in the Brexit Referendum in 2016 and that subsequent opinion polls suggest that pro-EU sentiment has grown since then.

Scotland’s desire to stay has also been “reaffirmed” by three subsequent nationwide elections – in December parties in favour of remaining in the EU, or holding a further referendum, gained almost three quarters of the vote in the UK election.

“So pro-European sentiment has very deep and very strong roots in Scotland.”

“We recognise the solidarity the EU offers to smaller Member States - people in Scotland have seen, and will I suspect long remember, the support the EU has given to Ireland throughout the first stage of the Brexit process.”

She told the packed audience that figures last week demonstrated that over the last 5 years, Scotland’s sales to the EU – which account for more than half of Scotland’s international exports – have grown by more than 4 percent a year - more than twice as fast as Scottish exports to the rest of the world.

She said, “We are leaving the European Union, imperfect that it undoubtedly is, at a time when we have never benefited from it more. We are also leaving it at a time when we have never needed it more.”

“That scene - one of solidarity and friendship - encapsulated many of the values the Scottish Government and many of the people in Scotland most cherish about the EU” Nicola Sturgeon

“In an age when intolerance and bigotry seem to be on the rise, the values of the EU – values of democracy, equality, solidarity, the rule of law and respect for human rights – are more important than ever.”

“It’s what happens next. What practical steps can Scotland take to mitigate the effects of the UK Government’s actions in bringing about Brexit?”

She said that “for as long as Scotland remains part of the UK we will try to influence UK Government policy, and where possible, to work constructively with the UK Government. That point extends far beyond Brexit negotiations.”

She reminded the audience that COP26 Climate Summit is taking place in Glasgow in November and “is due to be the most important climate summit since the Paris talks of 2015.

“There is a strong argument for saying that nothing that happens anywhere in the world this year will be more important than making the Glasgow summit a success. So the Scottish Government will do everything we can to help make that summit a success.”

“A similar principle applies to the UK’s negotiations with the EU. We will do what we can to work as closely and as constructively as possible with the UK government.”

But, with the next phase of Brexit talks set to begin at the start of March, she warned that the more the UK diverges from EU standards the less access it will have to the single market.

“The right to diverge will come at a cost – in my view a cost that is too heavy. As things stand, there is a danger that the UK will significantly reduce our access to the single market – something which will harm manufacturers and service industries across the country – because it wants the freedom to lower standards relating to health, safety, the environment and workers’ rights.”

“The Scottish Government will argue against that approach. We largely support the idea of a level playing field – which removes the possibility of the UK adopting lower standards than the EU. It helps to protect environmental standards and working conditions, and it also makes it easier for Scottish businesses to export to the EU. We will continually make that case as the negotiations proceed.”

Sturgeon, though, admitted that “on past evidence, I must confess that I am not overly optimistic about our chances of success.”

This was why, she noted, Scotland will introduce legislation which enables it to keep pace with EU regulatory standards and “protect the health and wellbeing of people in Scotland and make it easier, when the time comes, as I believe it will, for Scotland to return to the EU.”

Scotland will, she said, also seek to become independent and then to “re-establish our EU membership.”

She said, “The case for us being able to seek independence is clear. Scotland six years ago had a vote on whether to become an independent country. Opponents of independence said – repeatedly - that voting to remain in the UK, was the only way for us to stay in the EU. That argument weighed heavily with many voters.”

“Since then, Scotland has been taken out of the EU against our will.”

Opinion polls in Scotland have shown majority support for independence, she said, adding that there are large majorities for the principle that it should be for the Scottish Parliament - and not the Westminster Government - to determine whether and when there should be a referendum.

“I am a believer in democracy, in the rule of law, in the power of respectful persuasion and deliberation. That is why I continue to believe that - as we press the case for Scotland’s right to choose – we should agree a process between ourselves and the UK government for a referendum, in line with the clear mandate given by the people of Scotland.”

Sturgeon said, “None of this should be a matter for controversy with the UK government. The UK is not a unitary state. It is a voluntary union of nations. And one of those nations, Scotland, has expressed majority support - time and time again – for remaining in the EU.”

“I do not believe it is right that more than five million EU citizens should be removed from the EU, after 47 years of membership, without even the chance to have their say on the future of their country.”

With an eye on the outcome of the 2017 breakaway referendum in Catalonia which resulted in jail sentences for the leaders of the independence campaign, she said she wants an independence referendum “that is beyond legal challenge - so that the result is accepted and embraced both at home and internationally.”

“We are asking the Electoral Commission to test again the question used in 2014 – the question that would be used in a referendum and we are inviting Scotland’s elected representatives – MPs, MSPs, council leaders and recent MEPs – to establish a new Constitutional Convention, to broaden support for the principle of Scotland’s right to choose.”

Comments made by Donald Tusk, the former European Council President, last week confirmed, she said, “that there is goodwill towards Scotland.”

“We want to build on that goodwill. Ultimately, when – and I believe that it is a when – Scotland gains independence, I believe that the case for us joining the EU will be an overwhelming one,” she added.

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