Sturgeon Pushes Back Plans for a Scottish Independence Vote

(Bloomberg) -- Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon froze plans for a second independence referendum, though she vowed to revisit the possibility of another vote next year once the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union are known.

The decision to ditch the timetable announced three months ago came after voters turned away from her Scottish National Party in this month’s U.K. election. Sturgeon said she will now refocus her administration’s efforts on getting the best Brexit deal for Scotland.

“I said I would reflect on the outcome” of the election, Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh on Tuesday. “The Scottish government will reset the plan I set out on March 13. We will not seek to introduce the legislation for an independence referendum immediately.” Instead, she and her party will “put our shoulder to the wheel in seeking to influence the Brexit talks in a way that protects Scotland’s interests,” Sturgeon said.

Scotland has been Britain’s last bastion of resistance to leaving the EU, and Sturgeon vowed to give Scots an alternative as she pushes to keep her nation of 5.4 million people in Europe’s single market and customs union.

While the plan for an independence vote is still tied to Brexit, what’s now changed is that a referendum becomes less likely should the U.K. work out an agreement that keeps access to that market. Prime Minister Theresa May had in any case refused to grant Sturgeon’s semi-autonomous government the power to call a new vote.

It also buys some time to build what Sturgeon called “consensus and unity.” This month’s election reflected the divide in Scotland as much as it did the rest of the U.K., just along different lines. 

The SNP, in the ascendancy for a decade, lost more ground than polls predicted as voters returned to parties supporting maintaining the union with England and Wales. While the vote across the U.K. as a whole cost May a U.K. parliamentary majority, her Conservatives achieved their best result in Scotland since 1983.

Sturgeon said she acknowledged that the prospect of another vote to leave the U.K. had played a role in the election result. The SNP’s share of the ballots declined to 37 percent from 50 percent in 2015, when it won all but three of Scotland’s 59 districts less than a year after losing the previous referendum on independence by 55 percent to 45 percent.

Polls on independence have shown support for both sides has barely budged since then, and people are also split on whether there should be another referendum. The June 8 election was the sixth time Scots had voted in less than three years.

May had called on Sturgeon to shelve a new vote in comments made just before the first minister’s statement. “I think now is the time for the United Kingdom to be pulling together, not being driven apart,” the prime minister told reporters.