EDINBURGH — Politicians from the ruling pro-independence Scottish National Party have reacted with fury after a senior U.K. Cabinet minister suggested the high bar they would need to clear for Westminster to grant Scotland a second independence referendum.
The SNP have pushed for a second referendum since losing the first one in 2014. Emboldened after pro-independence parties won a majority of seats in May’s Scottish parliamentary elections, they have said a ballot should take place in the “early part” of the current five-year parliament.
The U.K. government and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have consistently rebuffed calls for any new referendum, though the Scottish government has indicated that they will press on with a referendum bill in the Scottish parliament regardless, risking an extended legal battle with Westminster.
But in an interview with POLITICO Thursday, Johnson’s Scotland Secretary Alister Jack suggested a fresh vote on the country’s future could take place if 60 percent of the population wanted one. It marked the first time a government minister had indicated what it would take for the U.K. to grant a second referendum.
“If you consistently saw 60 percent of the population wanting a referendum — not wanting independence but wanting a referendum [to take place] — and that was sustained over a reasonably long period, then I would acknowledge that there was a desire for a referendum,” Jack said. “Anyone can see that.”
Responding to reporter questions at a coronavirus briefing Friday, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused Jack of “making up constitutional rules as he goes along.”
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“We have constitutional rules that are pretty well established in a democracy, that if a party wins an election on a particular proposition they should get to implement that proposition,” Sturgeon added.
Her fellow lawmakers agreed.
Stephen Flynn, the MP for Aberdeen South, said that despite winning just 21.9 percent of the vote in May’s Scottish parliament election, the Conservatives were “trying to dictate Scotland’s right to choose.” His colleague Douglas Chapman said the pro-independence movement should “not fall into the trap of allowing Westminster to dictate the conditions for a referendum.”
The SNP’s Mhairi Black added that it “would be undemocratic and unsustainable for the Tories … to block the democratic right of the people of Scotland to determine their own future.” Another SNP MP, John Nicolson, said Jack “knows the game is up and should surrender to democracy with a modicum of dignity.”
Tommy Sheppard, a veteran SNP MP representing Edinburgh, asked: “What is it about democracy that the U.K. government is so afraid of?”