A second referendum on Scottish independence could be shelved if a so called “soft Brexit” approach is adopted when the UK quits the EU, Nicola Sturgeon has indicated.
The First Minister said she is ready to seek “consensus and compromise” in the short term, although she made it clear she believes Scotland is heading towards independence in the longer term.
A “soft Brexit” would mean that the UK retains membership of the EU single market, which Ms Sturgeon has previously said is a red-line issue because of its importance to the economy north of the Border.
The SNP has already launched a second national conversation on independence as it seeks to win over wavering No voters from 2014, while the Scottish Government has also drawn up legislation for a proposed second referendum to be held.
Ms Sturgeon indicated yesterday this could be shelved “in terms of the timetable of Brexit” if a soft exit could be achieved.
“I think there’s a lot of consensus starting to build around some of those additional powers, for example around immigration,” she told BBC Radio Scotland.
“We’ve put forward very detailed plans about how we avoid a hard Brexit and the reason it’s important to avoid a hard Brexit, let’s not forget, is because that will have a devastating impact on our economy and on jobs.
“So I’m in a sense willing to put aside my preferred option of independence in the EU to see if we can explore a consensus and compromise option.”
The First Minister added: “We want to try to work with others across the UK, across the political spectrum, to try to keep the UK in the single market.”
The First Minister warned later on social media it was a “reasonable assessment” that a second independence referendum currently appeared more likely than a soft Brexit, but said the Scottish Government proposals had been “put forward in good faith”, adding “Ball is in PM court”.
Support for independence among Scots remains in the mid-40 per cent range, roughly the same level it was when the country voted to stay in the UK in the 2014 referendum, although recent polls suggest backing for a second referendum being staged is falling.
Voters in Scotland backed the UK staying in the EU by 62 per cent to 38 per cent in the June referendum and the First Minister has previously said that a second referendum is “highly likely” in the aftermath of this vote.
The Scottish Government has put forward a plan to UK ministers detailing how Scotland could retain membership of the single market, which included devolving more powers to Holyrood, as part of a stand-alone Scottish-EU deal.
The alternative of a so called “hard Brexit” which would see the UK face hefty tariffs on trade with other EU nations – where none exist at the moment – are at the heart of the Scottish Government concerns. Independent research by the Fraser of Allander Institute has suggested this could mean the loss of 80,000 jobs in the long term and cost the Scottish economy billions of pounds.
Ms Sturgeon insisted she is “never going to stop arguing for independence”. She added: “I think Scotland will become independent and I think that’s the direction of travel. But we’re talking at the moment in the context of the Brexit vote.”
Prime Minister Theresa May has faced criticism over the lack of a coherent plan for Brexit.
Ms May has pledged to trigger Article 50, which starts the two-year process for the UK’s departure from the EU, in March.
The Tory government was rocked this week when the UK’s top diplomat to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers quit. His exit came amid claims of hostility from pro-Brexit ministers, unhappy about bleak warnings about the kind of deal they can expect to achieve for the UK in post-Brexit negotiations.
The ambassador urged staff in his parting message to “challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” and to “never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power”. It was widely seen as a criticism of Ms May.
Opposition parties in Scotland yesterday stepped up calls for Ms Sturgeon to rule out a second referendum altogether. Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said: “The First Minister knows that if another referendum on independence was called tomorrow, she’d lose.
“Scotland is kept in limbo as Nicola Sturgeon tries to find an escape route after marching her troops to the top of a mountain, but still keeping the threat of a second referendum on the table as a possibility for the future.
“The First Minister should act in the interests of the whole country by recognising the decision Scotland made just two years ago and respecting that result.”
Labour’s Iain Gray highlighted recent polls which indicate support is falling for a second vote,” he said.
“The vast majority of people in Scotland don’t want to go through another referendum. They want the SNP to address the crisis in our NHS and clean up the mess Nationalist ministers have made of education, not obsess about another independence referendum.”
The pro-independence Scottish Greens last night insisted that the only way to guarantee Scotland’s future in the European Union and defend workers’ right, as well as environmental protections is as an “independent nation within the European Union”.