Nicola Sturgeon works on the final draft of her letter to Theresa May in the Drawing Room of Bute House in Edinburgh on Thursday © AP
Nicola Sturgeon has formally called on Theresa May to start negotiations over a second Scottish independence referendum, saying she will seek to make “progress” towards a vote even if the UK government refuses to engage.
The official letter from Scotland’s first minister is intended to increase pressure on Mrs May after the Scottish parliament endorsed a second referendum and the UK government invoked Article 50 this week, triggering the exit process from the EU.
The British prime minister has already rejected Ms Sturgeon’s call for another independence vote by spring 2019. She has said it would be unfair to ask Scottish voters to decide their future before the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU has been firmly established.
Ms Sturgeon cited Mrs May’s own target of achieving a deal on Brexit and trade with the EU by March 2019 to support her claim that a plebiscite then would allow a clear choice between a Brexit UK and an independent Scotland able to chart its own course.
“There appears to be no rational reason for you to stand in the way of the will of the Scottish parliament,” the first minister wrote, adding that she hoped the timing of a referendum could be decided through “constructive discussion between our governments”.
“If that is not yet possible, I will set out to the Scottish parliament the steps I intend to take to ensure that progress is made towards a referendum.”
Ms Sturgeon gave no details of how she might seek to make such progress. Under the precedent set ahead of the first independence referendum in 2014, the UK parliament has the final say on whether such a vote can be held.
Some of Ms Sturgeon’s Scottish National party colleagues say she could pursue a vote without Westminster’s approval, but this would face a legal challenge and a likely boycott by opposition parties that would leave it with questionable political legitimacy.
The Scottish Conservatives dismissed Ms Sturgeon’s letter, saying her demands were unwanted by the public and unworkable because voters needed to see Brexit “play out” before deciding on independence.
“At the very moment we should be uniting as a country to get the good deal out of Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon is trying to divide us again,” said Jackson Carlaw, Scottish Conservative deputy leader.
Ms Sturgeon said the call for another referendum was in line with the governing SNP’s 2016 election manifesto, which said Scotland should have the right to another vote if it faced being dragged out of the EU “against its will”.
She also cited “the tradition of popular sovereignty in Scotland”, a phrase that leaves open the possibility of an independence process not governed by Westminster. But aides to the first minister have stressed her determination that a second plebiscite should be “legally and constitutionally exactly on the lines of the 2014 vote”.
Ms Sturgeon expects to outline her next steps after the Scottish parliament returns from Easter recess in mid-April.
Labour said another independence referendum would be “the wrong thing to do” for a Scottish economy already beset by Brexit uncertainty. “There is absolutely no evidence that another divisive referendum is the will of the people of Scotland,” said Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour leader.
In her letter, Ms Sturgeon also said she wished Mrs May well in her negotiations with the EU but complained that the prime minister had “largely ignored” Scotland and other devolved administrations ahead of triggering the Brexit process.
“As we move forward into a new phase, we need to agree a more direct role and influence for the devolved administrations,” the first minister wrote.