Brexit and Scotland: 'Indyref2' appears likely as UK divorce from EU looms

LONDON — Scotland's leader has indicated a new vote on independence from Britain could be held next year in response to Brexit — and polls suggest support for secession is rising.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says a ballot is "highly likely" after British voters opted to leave the European Union. Scotland voted against Brexit, but the U.K. overall backed it (52 percent to 48 percent) on June 23.

The prospect of Scottish independence means Britain's looming divorce from the EU could also see the break-up of the United Kingdom.

It also raises the pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May as she prepares to trigger formal exit negotiations later this month with the other 27 members of the EU.

Those talks are estimated to take up to two years. The fall of 2018 would therefore be a "common sense" date for a Scottish independence referendum, Sturgeon said in a BBC interview on Thursday.

Hasn't Scotland Decided This Already?

Yes. A referendum on independence — abbreviated to "indyref" — was held in September 2014 and the idea was defeated by 55 percent to 45 percent as voters shied away from ending 300 years of ties to London.

Sturgeon's predecessor had acknowledged that the 2014 poll was a "once in a generation opportunity" for Scotland. However, the 2016 Brexit vote has brought the issue back into play.

What Changed?

The Brexit result swiftly reopened Britain's constitutional wounds. A majority of voters in England and Wales voted to leave the EU but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay.

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Scottish Independence
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Scottish Independence
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 19: A discarded Yes sticker lies on cobble stones along the Royal Mile after the people of Scotland voted no to independence on September 19, 2014 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The majority of Scottish people have today voted 'No' in the referendum and Scotland will remain within the historic union of countries that make up the United Kingdom. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
A pro-independence supporter is pictured in George Square in Glasgow, Scotland, on September 19, 2014, following a defeat in the referendum on Scottish independence. Scotland rejected independence on Friday in a referendum that left the centuries-old United Kingdom intact but paved the way for a major transfer of powers away from London. AFP PHOTO / ANDY BUCHANAN (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-independence supporters are pictured in George Square in Glasgow, Scotland, on September 19, 2014, following a defeat in the referendum on Scottish independence. Scotland rejected independence on Friday in a referendum that left the centuries-old United Kingdom intact but paved the way for a major transfer of powers away from London. AFP PHOTO / ANDY BUCHANAN (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-independence supporters console each other in George Square in Glasgow, Scotland, on September 19, 2014, following a defeat in the referendum on Scottish independence. Scotland rejected independence on Friday in a referendum that left the centuries-old United Kingdom intact but paved the way for a major transfer of powers away from London. AFP PHOTO / ANDY BUCHANAN (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-independence supporters push each other in a shopping trolley in Glasgow, Scotland, on September 19, 2014, following a defeat in the referendum on Scottish independence. Scotland rejected independence on Friday in a referendum that left the centuries-old United Kingdom intact but paved the way for a major transfer of powers away from London. AFP PHOTO / ANDY BUCHANAN (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 19: Leader of the UK Independence Party, UKIP Nigel Farage gives interviews on Abingdon Green on September 19, 2014 in London, England. The majority of Scottish people have today voted 'No' in the referendum and Scotland will remain within the historic union of countries that make up the United Kingdom. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 19: 'Better Together' supporters celebrate the result of the Scottish referendum on independence at the count centre for the Scottish referendum at Ingleston Hall on September 19, 2014 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The majority of Scottish people have today voted “No” in the referendum and Scotland will remain within the historic union of countries that make up the United Kingdom. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 19: Leader of the UK Independence Party, UKIP Nigel Farage posts letters to Scottish MP's urging them not to vote on English laws on September 19, 2014 in London, England. The majority of Scottish people have today voted 'No' in the referendum and Scotland will remain within the historic union of countries that make up the United Kingdom. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
British Labour Party MP and pro-union supporter Alistair Darling addresses supporters during a 'Better Together' referendum event in Glasgow, Scotland, on September 19, 2014. Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond on Friday conceded defeat in his party's campaign for independence from the rest of the United Kingdom, after all but one result from the historic referendum was declared. AFP PHOTO / ANDY BUCHANAN (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister David Cameron addresses the media outside 10 Downing Street in London, on September 19, 2014, following results in the Scottish referendum on independence. Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond on Friday conceded defeat in his party's campaign for independence from the rest of the United Kingdom, after all but one result from the historic referendum was declared. AFP PHOTO / CARL COURT (Photo credit should read CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)
DALMALLY, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 06: Pro-Scottish independence 'Yes Scotland' campaign stall at the Dalmally Agricultural Society Show on September 6, 2014 in Dalmally, Scotland. The Dalmally show is an annual event in which prizes are given to best livestock, best-grown vegetables, for cooking and home industries arts. Exhibitions, festivities and demonstrations also take place at this major Scottish agricultural show. Scotland will vote on whether or not to Leave the United Kingdom in a referendum to be held on September 18th this year. (Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images)
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 04: Political viewpoints decorate the exterior of premises- one reads 'Vote No' in favour of the Union, the other is a 'Yes' sign for a 'Yes Scotland' pro-independence office, showing opposing sides of the argument for the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum, on September 4, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. Scotland will vote on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom in a referendum to be held on September 18th this year. (Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images)
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 04: Jim Murphy MP, former Secretary of State for Scotland, speaks from the soapbox in support of the Union as he continues his '100 towns in 100 days' tour outside the Gallery of Modern Art, on September 4, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. Mr Murphy resumed his tour this week after having to suspend it last week following disruption and attempts to silence him by supporters of the pro-Independence vote. Scotland will vote on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom in a referendum to be held on September 18th this year. (Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images)
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 04: Jim Murphy MP, former Secretary of State for Scotland, speaks from the soapbox in support of the Union as he continues his '100 towns in 100 days' tour outside the Gallery of Modern Art, on September 4, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. Mr Murphy resumed his tour this week after having to suspend it last week following disruption and attempts to silence him by supporters of the pro-Independence vote. Scotland will vote on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom in a referendum to be held on September 18th this year. (Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images)
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 04: Jim Murphy MP, former Secretary of State for Scotland, arrives carrying his soapboxes as he continues his '100 towns in 100 days' tour outside the Gallery of Modern Art, on September 4, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. Mr Murphy resumed his tour this week after having to suspend it last week following disruption and attempts to silence him by supporters of the pro-Independence vote. Scotland will vote on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom in a referendum to be held on September 18th this year. (Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images)
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 04: Pro-Union supporters listen to Jim Murphy MP, former Secretary of State for Scotland, as speaks in defence of the Union during his '100 towns in 100 days' tour, outside the Gallery of Modern Art, on September 4, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. Mr Murphy resumed his tour this week after having to suspend it last week following disruption and attempts to silence him by supporters of the pro-Independence vote. Scotland will vote on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom in a referendum to be held on September 18th this year. (Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images)
BLANTYRE, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 04: Labour Leader Ed Miliband joins the Scottish Labour Party's independence campaign trail on September 4, 2014 in Blantyre, Scotland. Miliband urged Scots to reject independence in a referendum on the September 18, promising he will win a national election next year and give them the changes they desire. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 29: Better Together leader Alistair Darling joins the Deputy leader of the Scottish Labour party Anas Sarwar during a visit to Glasgow Central Mosque on August 29, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. Mr. Darling and Mr. Sarwar were making the case for keeping the Scotland in the Union ahead of the referendum vote on independence on September 18th. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
DUNDEE, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 27: Yes and Better Together supporters exchange views with one another as Jim Murphy Shadow Secretary of State for International Development (not seen), speaks on his soapbox during his '100 Towns in 100 Days' tour on August 27, 2014 in Dundee, Scotland. Mr. Murphy, Labour MP, is touring Scotland on behalf of the Better Together, spreading his message about the benefits of Scotland remaining part of the union and informing the public of the risks that independence poses for the country. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
DUNDEE, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 27: Yes and Better Together supporters exchange views with one another as Jim Murphy Shadow Secretary of State for International Development (not seen), speaks on his soapbox during his '100 Towns in 100 Days' tour on August 27, 2014 in Dundee, Scotland. Mr. Murphy, Labour MP, is touring Scotland on behalf of the Better Together, spreading his message about the benefits of Scotland remaining part of the union and informing the public of the risks that independence poses for the country. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
DUNDEE, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 27: Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown attends a Better Together rally on August 27, 2014 in Dundee, Scotland. Both encouraged Scots with postal votes to vote no to independence, as postal ballots are being sent out this week to voters across Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
FENWICK, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 26: Yes campaign placards are placed in a field on August 26, 2014 in Fenwick, Scotland. In less than a month voters will go to the polls to vote yes or no on whether Scotland should become an independent country. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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Sturgeon says Scots face being forced out of the European single market and customs union against their will because the U.K. as a whole voted to leave, and that Brexit has dramatically changed the political circumstances.

Her pro-independence Scottish National Party senses an opportunity to turn public opinion in favor of separation by capitalizing on anger over Brexit.

Does Scotland Have the Power to Hold Another Referendum?

No, but that's not seen as a major issue. Control of education, health care and a slew of other matters is devolved from London's Westminster to the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. But a special authority — known as a "section 30 order" — would be needed in order to hold another referendum.

May is firmly opposed to Scottish independence but hasn't given a clear answer on whether she would veto any request for a referendum. However, doing so would likely be self-defeating since it would play directly into the hands of Scottish nationalists.

What Happens Next?

May and Sturgeon have been performing a political dance in recent weeks. Sturgeon reportedly believes May's official notification of withdrawal from the EU — promised sometime before the end of March — is a key milestone, and that no decision on a referendum would be made until then.

However, Sturgeon must address her party conference next weekend and could use that moment as a launch pad for what is already being termed "indyref2."

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Sights, scenery of Scotland
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Out Skerries, Shetland Islands, Scotland, United Kingdom, Europe

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Close up of puffin - coastline of the most northern part of shetland islands in the background

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Scottish Highlands

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Skyline of Edinburgh at sunset. Cityscape include Edinburgh Castle, Balmoral Hotel Clock Tower and the Scott monument.

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The ruined Ardvreck Castle reflected on the waters of Loch Assynt, Sutherland Shire, in the Scottish Highlands.

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Walker sits on viewpoint at The Quiraing, twenty four mile rock ledge on Isle of Skye, Scotland, UK

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Derelict house by remote loch with dramatic clouds and rainbow, Scotland, October 2008

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Urquhart Castle on the famous Loch Ness in Scotland

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Stunning sunrise at the Quiraing on the Trotternish Ridge, Isle of Skye.

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High angle view of Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

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Old man of storr on the Isle of Skye at sunrise.

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What Do Polls Say?

Most polls show support for independence in Scotland has barely shifted since the 2014 vote and that most Scots do not relish another bruising national debate.

However, a poll by Ipsos MORI published Thursday showed that, among those likely to vote, support for independence had risen to 50 percent, neck and neck with those who want to remain in the United Kingdom.

That was a two point increase in support for independence compared to Ipsos MORI's last poll. They surveyed 1,029 people by telephone between Feb. 24 and March 6.

In February, a survey by BMG for the Herald newspaper also found the gap had narrowed to 51 percent in favor of remaining in the U.K. versus 49 percent supporting secession.

Nevertheless the margins are narrow and the polls are not yet consistent enough to paint a clear picture.

Scottish politics and polling expert John Curtice wrote last week: "The broader truth is that, in a country that is still so divided on the merits of independence, it is difficult for either side to claim clear majority support in any aspect of the surrounding debate — and that includes the debate on holding a second ballot."

It's the Economy

While Scots expressed a preference for access to the single market and cross-border movement, they might be less persuaded on the economic case for Scottish independence — a subject of intense debate during the 2014 referendum.

Scotland has a population of around 5.3 million, according to the most recent census, slightly more than 8 percent of the United Kingdom's population as a whole.

Nationalists say Scotland stands to benefit from remaining on better terms with the rest of Europe amid anger at Britain's decision to leave.

However, pro-Union parties say the global fall in oil prices, and subsequent collapse in revenues from North Sea oil, means the prospects for an economically successful independent Scotland have weakened significantly since 2014.

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