Scottish leader: Leaving EU bad for Britain


For Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the resurgent Scottish National Party and a staunch backer of Britain remaining in the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision this week to press ahead with a referendum on getting out is not only wrongheaded but illogical.

“What I find odd about this referendum is that the prime minister says that he wants to stay in Europe. Both of the biggest U.K. parties want to stay in Europe. There’s overwhelming support — or so it seems — for the EU in the Westminster parliament, and yet David Cameron has us standing perilously [close] to the exit door to appease members of his own party,” Ms. Sturgeon said Thursday during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

The opinions of the head of an out-of-power minority party ordinarily might not attract much attention, but Britain’s general election last month unexpectedly made Ms. Sturgeon, who is on a four-day tour of New York and Washington this week, a central figure in the debate over Britain’s place in Europe — and Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom.

The 44-year-old lawyer and Scottish nationalist was in the U.S. to argue for a “no” vote on the referendum and to promote Scotland as one of Europe’s premier destinations for students, travelers and businesses.

After Scotland last year rejected the SNP’s campaign for independence, Ms. Sturgeon and the SNP bounced back to take England’s northern neighbor by storm, capturing 56 of the 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland and decimating the political base of Britain’s center-left Labor Party. Ms. Sturgeon has used her newfound clout to revive talk of another vote on independence, one that could leave her country economically crippled.

Supporters of keeping Britain in the European Union say getting out would plunge the U.K. into an economic recession, hurting businesses that depend on close ties to the European market. But “euroskeptics” in Mr. Cameron’s ruling Conservatives, and in smaller parties like the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), argue EU membership is more trouble and cost than it is worth and that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels are undercutting Britain’s ability to govern itself and regulate its economy.

Ms. Sturgeon was elected head of the SNP in 2014 in the wake of the failed referendum, becoming the first woman to lead the party. She previously served as a member of the Scottish parliament and as the deputy leader under former First Minister Alex Salmond, who announced his resignation after the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign lost in last year’s referendum by more than 10 points.

Although the result was seen as a devastating blow to Scottish nationalists, Ms. Sturgeon helped fashion a remarkable turnaround.

Just months after the vote, membership surged in pro-independence political parties. Members of the SNP more than quadrupled from roughly 25,000 members on referendum day to more than 100,000 around the start of last month’s parliamentary elections, making it the third-largest political party in the U.K. Then, in the May 7 general elections, the SNP trampled its competitors under the reins of the fresh-faced Ms. Sturgeon, gaining 50 seats in the parliament.

“This is a massive, massive result,” Ms. Sturgeon said after her party’s victory. “Clearly, there is an appetite for change in Scotland, and there is a very, very strong desire for Scotland’s voice to be heard more loudly.”

Scottish voters, Ms. Sturgeon has argued, are much more pro-EU than their English counterparts, and the referendum debate could heighten the divisions between the two.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a very palpable sense of concern at the prospect of the U.K. coming out of the EU and an interest in how that debate will develop,” Ms. Sturgeon said.

She also cited a recent poll of Scottish voters in which 72 percent said they want the U.K. to stay in the EU, while just 28 percent support leaving it. But while Scottish opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of a united U.K. and EU, Ms. Sturgeon doesn’t see a referendum as a “priority for most people in Scotland.”

“It is possible — depending on how the result goes across the U.K. — that Scotland could be forced out of the EU against our will,” she added. “That’s why the European question is in some ways directly linked to the question of how the U.K. is governed.”

The SNP claims Scotland’s voice is being ignored by Westminster’s leaders as the EU referendum approaches, leading the Scottish government to propose a ‘double majority’ provision, which would only allow Britain to exit the EU if each of the kingdom’s countries agreed.