GLASGOW, Scotland (Reuters) - The British government’s “shambolic” handling of its divorce talks with the European Union demonstrates that Scotland needs to become independent, Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon told her Scottish National Party (SNP) on Tuesday.
Less than six months before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has yet to reach a deal on the terms of the divorce and its future economic relationship with its biggest trade partner.
In the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, a majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the bloc, while England - by far the most populous of the home nations - and Wales voted to leave.
“This UK government’s handling of these (Brexit) negotiations has been shambolic, chaotic, and utterly incompetent,” said Sturgeon, closing a three-day SNP conference.
Graphic - SNP in numbers: reut.rs/2OeK7Yn
Sturgeon contrasted the solidarity the EU has shown with its member state Ireland with what she said was the “contempt” shown to Scotland by London in talks to determine the shape of Brexit.
“It seems to me that one of the lasting casualties of Brexit is the notion that the UK is in any sense a partnership of equals,” said the pro-EU Sturgeon, who is also Scotland’s first minister and runs a devolved administration in Edinburgh.
“Brexit is a serious problem for Scotland. The only solution to that is to become an independent country,” she said, adding she was more and more confident that this would happen.
In a 2014 referendum, Scottish voters rejected independence from London by 55 percent to 45 percent. But in the 2016 referendum, 62 percent of Scots backed remaining in the EU, while in the whole UK 52 percent voted to leave.
Sturgeon has tried unsuccessfully to persuade May to keep the UK in the EU’s single market after Brexit to soften the economic impact. May, whose own Conservative Party is deeply divided over Brexit, says Britain needs to leave EU structures in order to be able to forge new trade deals around the world.
Sturgeon has said she will address Scotland’s path to independence once it is clear how Brexit is shaping up. However her options are far from easy.
Unhappiness at Brexit has helped boost SNP membership. It now stands at almost 125,500, slightly more than May’s Conservatives in the whole of the UK.
But opinion polls show no significant increase in support among Scots for independence. And complicating Sturgeon’s calculations, a third of the voters who backed Scottish independence in 2014 also backed Brexit two years later.
Those voters may not be inclined to back independence a second time if the aim is to take Scotland back into the EU, John Curtice, Britain’s leading poll expert, told Reuters
“Sturgeon’s problem is that it has become more difficult for her to appeal to the third of people in Scotland who voted “yes” (in 2014) and also voted for Brexit,” he said.
“What she’s gained on the swings she’s lost on the roundabouts, and it does mean that Brexit is potentially a divisive issue for the nationalist movement rather than a unifying one.”
But Sturgeon’s 35 SNP lawmakers in the 650-member UK parliament in London can make life difficult for May, who relies on the support of a small Northern Irish party to pass legislation.
The SNP has said it will likely vote against any Brexit deal May clinches with the EU as it will fall well short of what the party wants.
Graphics by Andy Bruce; Editing by Gareth Jones