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Scottish Parliament backs new independence vote

The Edinburgh-based legislature voted 69 to 59 in favor of an independence vote, but after triggering Article 50 on Wednesday, PM May called for the four nations of the United Kingdom to come together.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (r.) and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon meet in Glasgow, Scotland, on March 27, 2017.
Russell Cheyne/AP
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When Scotland voted to remain part of Great Britain back in 2014, it was seen as a resolution to the independence debate – at least for a while. But then Brexit changed the game.

On Tuesday, the Edinburgh-based legislature voted 69 to 59 in favor of asking Westminster for another independence vote. The referendum would take place in late 2018 or early 2019, said Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, after the details of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union are clearer. The British Parliament must also approve holding the referendum for the vote to be legally binding.

For Scotland, independence would be an opportunity to forge its own path, possibly including closer ties with the EU. But the planned request comes at an inopportune moment: British Prime Minister Theresa May has called for the four nations that make up the United Kingdom to draw together, as Britain begins to negotiate its exit.

“We are one great union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future,” she said in her statement on triggering Article 50 on Wednesday. “And now that the decision to leave has been made – and the process is underway – it is time to come together.”

In 2014, Scotland voted 55 percent to 45 percent in favor of remaining in the UK with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The months leading up to the referendum were marked by a high-profile campaign, with political leaders, economists, and celebrities like Patrick Stewart and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling weighing in. The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), which had long advocated for the referendum, billed it as a once-in-a-generation vote.

But the Brexit referendum last June exposed the fault lines in the United Kingdom, with majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain and England and Wales voting to leave.

As members of Parliament backed the decision to trigger Article 50, citing the “will of the people,” some Scottish politicians argued that Scots’ voices had been silenced, leading to renewed calls for independence. 

An independence vote before Brexit concludes would give Scots the opportunity to decide whether they are satisfied with the terms of the Brexit deal or would rather go their own way.

Though Parliament will approve the final terms of Britain's exit from the EU, there is not expected to be a second UK-wide referendum.

"The people of Scotland should have the right to choose between Brexit, possibly a very hard Brexit, or becoming an independent country able to chart our own course," Ms. Sturgeon said before the Tuesday vote.

But Westminster has said the details of Brexit would not yet be clear by the proposed independence vote.

"It would be unfair to the people of Scotland to ask them to make a crucial decision without the necessary information about our future relationship with Europe, or what an independent Scotland would look like," the British government said in a statement.

Ms. May indicated Wednesday that she expects to conclude negotiations within the two-year withdrawal timeframe laid out in Article 50, however.

The new, SNP-backed referendum faces opposition from the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat parties in Scotland, who say the independence question has been settled and Scots are tired of debating it. 

Scots do not want "the division and rancor of another referendum campaign,” Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Sturgeon said she would wait until after Article 50 was triggered to ask Westminster about a second referendum. But she added that if the British government tried to prevent a referendum, she would present the Scottish Parliament with her plan for addressing the situation.

If a second independence vote were to be held, 47 percent of Scots surveyed early this month said they expect it would pass, compared to 40 percent who think it would fail, according to an Opinium poll. Similarly, 47 percent favor remaining in the EU, while 44 percent support independence.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.