Scotland: Government tables bill on new referendum rules

Scotland's governing SNP is eyeing a fresh push for statehood within the EU, following European election success.

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    Independence campaigners have held frequent rallies in Scotland [Russell Cheyne/Reuters]
    Independence campaigners have held frequent rallies in Scotland [Russell Cheyne/Reuters]

    Glasgow, Scotland - The pro-independence Scottish government has tabled a bill which could pave the way for a new referendum on Scottish statehood.

    The Referendums (Scotland) Bill was launched by Constitutional Relations Secretary Mike Russell, of the governing Scottish National Party (SNP), at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh on Wednesday.

    The legislation, which does not suggest a date for any poll, comes just days after the SNP's success at the EU-wide European Parliament elections. This saw the party top the poll in 30 out of 32 Scottish council areas and gain three of the six seats allocated to Scotland as part of the UK's designated 73 Members of the European Parliament.

    Today's announcement by the SNP - which has been the party of administration at the devolved Scottish Parliament since 2007 - met derision from their pro-unionist opponents.

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    As Scotland's first minister and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, hailed the bill as a chance for "Scotland ... to choose a better future than the one being offered by [London] Westminster", her critics lined up to declare their opposition.

    Speaking in advance of the announcement, Adam Tomkins, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party constitution spokesman, stated it would "come as no surprise to anybody in Scotland that Nicola Sturgeon has decided to use the EU elections to manufacture the case for a second independence referendum".

    "No matter what people in Scotland say or do, the SNP's answer is always the same - to take us out of the UK," he added.

    Second chance?

    The SNP's latest efforts to make a case for Scottish statehood come five years after the historic 2014 independence referendum, which saw the forces of the UK union defeat independence by 55-45 percent.

    Polls today put support for Scottish sovereignty almost neck and neck with support for Scotland's continued place within the UK. And as British negotiations over Brexit - which Scotland rejected by 62-38 percent in the 2016 UK-wide in/out EU referendum - continue to rumble on without success, Scottish independence supporters are eyeing another stab at their long-awaited goal.

    "As a supporter of independence, I'm obviously happy to see the process move forward," retired academic and think-tank director John MacDonald told Al Jazeera. "I do subscribe to the idea that the way Brexit has unfolded, Scotland's 'remain' vote should be seen as the catalyst for another independence referendum."

    Despite the SNP's dominant opinion poll ratings, governing with the most seats at the Scottish Parliament and holding 35 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster, others contend that the party's pursuit of independence is not without its pitfalls.

    "The SNP has problems of incumbency and their record and problems of complacency and of over-partisanship in part of their base," Scottish political expert Gerry Hassan told Al Jazeera. "It also has the coming trouble of the [Alex] Salmond trial, which is going to throw a whole set of questions over all those things."

    Salmond, Scotland's former SNP first minister (2007-14), who was the leader of the party during the 2014 independence referendum, is due to stand trial this year over charges of attempted rape and sexual assault. As Salmond's political protegee, Sturgeon, who hopes for a public vote on independence in the second half of 2020, has been forced to distance herself from a man she had long considered a close friend and ally in light of the allegations.

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    In order to hold a sanctioned referendum, the Scottish government requires permission from the British government, which it has, so far, refused to give. In the hours after Wednesday's announcement in Edinburgh, three of the candidates vying to be the next UK prime minister had ruled out giving Scotland a vote on its independence.

    Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart and James Cleverly all said they would refuse any request from Sturgeon for what is known as a Section 30 order.

    But, says MacDonald, in order for Scotland to unleash its potential, it must not only leave the UK, but join the EU as an independent state - both bedrocks of SNP policy.

    "Scotland is a constrained nation within the UK and has benefitted massively from European Union membership, such as programmes which have allowed Scotland to collaborate with its near [European] neighbours," he says.

    "The UK has the capacity to adjust to Brexit," he concluded. "But for Scotland, it will be disastrous."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News