By Elisabeth O’Leary
EDINBURGH (Reuters) – Scotland’s secessionist leader on Tuesday postponed plans for a second independence referendum until the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union are clear.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was putting on hold plans to introduce legislation that would have demanded a second referendum.
Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party wants to break Scotland’s 300-year-old union with England, had been seeking a referendum in late 2018 or early 2019, ahead of Britain’s EU exit which is due in March 2019.
“We will not seek to introduce the legislation for an independence referendum immediately,” Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament. “The Scottish government will reset the plan I set out.”
She later told the BBC she believed that meant another secession vote, if it took place, would most likely be before 2021 when the current Scottish legislative term ends.
“I do think that we are talking potentially within this parliament, but I don’t want to make that judgment now.”
Sturgeon’s party lost 21 of its 56 seats in the United Kingdom’s parliament at Westminster in the June 8 election. In the days after the election she acknowledged that her insistence on a second independence referendum had lost the SNP votes.
“None of the questions raised by Brexit are answered by ripping Scotland out of our own union of nations,” Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservatives leader, told the Scottish parliament.
In March, the Scottish parliament backed Sturgeon’s demand to hold a new referendum, but British Prime Minister Theresa May had refused to enter into discussions on the proposal.
“What I think Nicola Sturgeon should be saying today is that she’s going to completely take off the table the question of Indy Ref 2, a second independence referendum in Scotland,” May said. “Now is the time for the United Kingdom to be pulling together, not being driven apart.”
However, Sturgeon said she intended to offer Scots a fresh choice on secession as soon as it was clear what Brexit meant.
“We will – in good faith – redouble our efforts and put our shoulder to the wheel in seeking to influence the Brexit talks in a way that protects Scotland’s interests,” Sturgeon said, adding she wanted Scotland to stay in the European single market.
It is unclear, however, whether she will be able to reinvigorate the independence cause, given the divisive nature of referendums per se and the political chaos into which Britain has been thrown by Brexit.
“The implications of Brexit are so potentially far reaching that, as they become clearer, I think people will increasingly demand that choice (on secession),” Sturgeon said.
“We face a Brexit we did not vote for, and in a form more extreme than most would have imagined just one year ago.”
Scots voted against independence by 55 to 45 percent in 2014 but the 2016 Brexit referendum called the future of the United Kingdom into question because England and Wales voted to leave while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay.
Sturgeon told the Scottish assembly she had listened carefully to those who were concerned about Brexit but had not wanted another independence vote immediately and were worried about a lack of political clarity. She said a choice needed to be offered, but the timing needed to be more cautious.
“The Scottish government remains committed strongly to the principle of giving Scotland a choice at the end of this process but I want to reassure people that our proposal is not for a referendum now, or before there is sufficient clarity about the options,” Sturgeon said.
(Editing by Michael Holden, Guy Faulconbridge and Alison Williams)