Scottish nationalists pledge independence referendum by end of 2023

Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, launches her manifesto during the Scottish Parliamentary election in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain April 15, 2021 . Jeff J Mitchell/Pool via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) - The ruling Scottish National Party pledged on Thursday to hold an independence referendum by the end of 2023, a step that could fracture the United Kingdom by ripping apart the 314-year union between England and Scotland.

If there was another referendum and the Scots voted out, it would mark the biggest shock to the United Kingdom since Irish independence a century ago - just as London grapples with the impact of both Brexit and the COVID-19 crisis.

Scotland voted against independence by 55% to 45% in 2014, but Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish National Party (SNP) wants another referendum if it wins the Scottish Parliament election on May 6. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly dismissed SNP calls for a referendum.

"We believe the people of Scotland should have the opportunity in a referendum when the COVID crisis is over to decide whether Scotland should be an independent country," the SNP said in its manifesto published on Thursday.

"The SNP intention is for the referendum to be within the first half of the five year term," the SNP said, adding that the date of the referendum would be "determined by our democratically elected parliament".

Although Johnson has the power to refuse another independence vote he would likely face a constitutional showdown with Scotland.

The SNP said that if it won a majority in May then the Scottish Parliament would pass a referendum bill, which proposes that the question on the ballot be: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

"There can be no moral or democratic justification for Boris Johnson or any Westminster government to obstruct the right of the people of Scotland to decide their own future," the SNP said.

The SNP currently has 61 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament but by working with the Greens' 5 lawmakers, it has effective control of the devolved parliament.

The nations of Britain have shared the same monarch since James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603 and a formal union created the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707.

But Brexit - and Johnson's handling of the COVID-19 crisis - have strained the ties that bind together England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales into the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom as whole voted 52%-48% to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum: England and Wales voted to leave but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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