EDINBURGH (Reuters) – Britain’s government should “of course” deny a request for a new referendum on Scottish independence if one is made, foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said on Thursday, wading into a row about secession fuelled by Brexit.
Speaking at the University of Glasgow, Hunt said British Prime Minister Theresa May would reject any request by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for a fresh vote on secession – something nationalist activists are pushing for because of unhappiness about Brexit.
Asked what May’s response would be, Hunt said: “The answer of course will be ‘no’ for the very simple reason we think the Scottish government should be focused on the concerns of Scottish voters – which is not to have another very divisive independence referendum.”
Scots rejected independence in a binding 2014 vote by a 10 percentage point margin.
Hunt’s comments, likely to create backlash amongst Scots sensitive to being told what to do by politicians in distant London, came as Sturgeon reiterated that any new secession vote would have to be legally agreed, shooting down comments by the deputy leader of her own Scottish National Party (SNP).
The row highlights the pressure on Sturgeon from within the SNP as well as the grassroots independence movement, which is preparing a new secession campaign fuelled by anger over May’s Brexit plans.
“I want and consider that the (legal) basis of the referendum should be the same as the last time,” Sturgeon told reporters in Edinburgh, according to the Guardian newspaper.
She was responding to Keith Brown, her SNP deputy, who said earlier a new independence vote could happen even if it did not have the UK parliament’s blessing.
Under current constitutional arrangements, any legally binding vote on secession would have to be sanctioned by Britain’s parliament at Westminster.
Nationalists say there is democratic justification for a new vote because of the political events following Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the EU, which they say have ignored Scotland.
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Within Britain’s overall vote to leave the EU, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to keep their membership while England and Wales voted to leave, straining the ties of the four-nation United Kingdom.
While support for secession has not shifted from the 45 percent that backed it in 2014, the political maelstrom unleashed by Brexit in London has angered many Scots and motivated those backing independence to target new supporters and a new vote on secession.
Sturgeon has said she will provide an update on what Brexit means for Scottish independence in the coming weeks.