LONDON—New battle lines were drawn over Britain’s future on Monday, when the government secured unrestricted authority to negotiate withdrawal from the European Union (EU) while confronting the possibility that, in doing so, it may bring about an independent Scotland.
In a day of “Ping-Pong”, as the back and forth between the House of Commons and the House of Lords is known, Prime Minister Theresa May finally won her parliamentary battle to start talks on Britain’s exit from the EU, unhindered by any legislative constraints.
But the votes in Parliament came hours after the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, raised the stakes by demanding a new referendum on Scottish independence. While acknowledging that the Scots had rejected independence in a referendum just three years ago, she said the country found itself at a “hugely important crossroads” because of the withdrawal, known as Brexit.
After Monday night’s votes, David Davis, the Cabinet minister responsible for negotiating Brexit, said Parliament had supported the government “in its determination to get on with the job of leaving the EU and negotiating a positive new partnership with its remaining member-states.”
“We are now on the threshold of the most important negotiation for our country in a generation,” Davis added in a statement.
The House of Commons last month gave the prime minister and her government the approval the High Court said they needed to proceed with negotiations on Brexit. But the unelected House of Lords then approved two amendments calling for guarantees that EU residents of Britain have the right to remain and giving Parliament more say in the final deal on leaving the union.
The government argued that it should guarantee the rights of EU nationals only when Britain received reciprocal assurances about its citizens in continental Europe. It also said giving Parliament more say over a Brexit deal would impede May’s negotiating freedom.
On Monday night elected lawmakers in the House of Commons overturned both amendments, and the House of Lords yielded by a significant majority, in line with parliamentary protocol, handing May her wish of unimpeded authority.
She is now in a position to fulfill her promise to send formal notification, by the end of the month, of the start of withdrawal talks under Article 50 of the EU’s treaty.
Sturgeon’s call for a new referendum underscores the mood of uncertainty within one of Europe’s most durable political systems, after the divisive referendum in June, in which 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the EU.
Scotland voted 62-38 to remain in the bloc, however, illustrating the divergence between Scottish and English politics.
Since then, May has rejected calls from Sturgeon for a soft Brexit that would keep Scotland, at least, inside the EU’s single market and its tariff-free customs union.
With opinion polls showing Scots almost equally divided over the merits of independence, the threat of another referendum that could break the United Kingdom apart complicates what was already a highly complex Brexit negotiation for May.
Speaking in Edinburgh on Monday morning, Sturgeon said she would seek permission from the Scottish Parliament to hold a second referendum, which she said should be staged between fall 2018 and spring 2019—before Britain quits the EU.
While that should be straight forward, given the dominance of her pro-independence Scottish National Party in the Edinburgh Parliament, the approval of May could prove more complicated.
Politically, it may be hard for May to refuse, though she may try to delay any new vote in Scotland until after the withdrawal, calculating that this would make it harder for the independence campaign to prevail.
Sturgeon said unless May made further concessions, Scots should be able to choose whether to follow other Britons into “a hard Brexit, or to become an independent country able to secure a real partnership of equals with the rest of the UK and our own relationship with Europe.”
She also argued that, in its current, weakened state, and trailing in opinion polls, Britain’s opposition Labour Party stands little chance of winning a general election, and that independence was the only way for Scots to prevent themselves from being governed—possibly for a decade—by May’s Conservative Party, which has limited support in Scotland.
In response, May said a referendum would set Scotland on course for “uncertainty and division”, arguing that most Scottish voters did not want another vote on independence.
During the previous referendum, the economic case against Scottish independence seemed to prove decisive—and that argument may have gotten stronger since, because of the global decline in the price of oil, a bulwark of the Scottish economy.
In 2014, however, opponents of independence argued that an independent Scotland would lose its membership in the EU.