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First minister of Scotland unveils campaign for Scottish independence

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has added to the political challenges facing Boris Johnson, the U.K. prime minister. She announced today that her relatively autonomous government in Scotland would pursue a second referendum on full Scottish independence. That's even though Johnson has repeatedly said now is not the time to discuss such a potentially significant split in a kingdom that's remained united for more than three centuries. Willem Marx has the details from London.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: Ever since 2014, when Scots last had the chance to choose independence and rejected it, the Scottish National Party of Nicola Sturgeon has sought support for a rerun. After retaining control of Scotland's devolved government earlier this year, Sturgeon claimed a mandate to demand a fresh vote on her country's future. And at a moment of political peril for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson down in Westminster, she made her move today.

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NICOLA STURGEON: This is a U.K. government that has no respect for democracy. It has no regard for the rule of law either. That means if we are to uphold democracy here in Scotland, we must forge a way forward, if necessary, without a Section 30 order.

MARX: A Section 30 order is the approval whereby the Parliament in London can grant temporary powers to the Parliament in Edinburgh to hold this kind of vote. Since taking office, Johnson has declined to offer this option. But these days, he's got several other problems, including accusations that his government is breaching international law with its plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda and for a proposal to override parts of Britain's Brexit deal with Europe, not to mention his own criminal involvement in social gatherings at Downing Street during COVID-19 lockdowns that earned its own political label, partygate. At the same time, Johnson is now picking a fight with Europe over Northern Ireland's trade status. His government wants to override parts of the 2019 Brexit deal with the European Union that it doesn't like. His foreign minister, Liz Truss, says the consequences of inaction would be serious.

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LIZ TRUSS: There are very real problems that we're facing in Northern Ireland. First of all, on trade, we're seeing trade diverted from east-west to north-south. The people of Northern Ireland are not able to benefit from the same tax benefits as people in Great Britain, and that is causing a feeling of inequality between the different communities of Northern Ireland.

MARX: Sam Lowe is the director of trade policy at business consultancy Flint Global, and says when it comes to Europe, U.K. leaders have in recent years not always acted in good faith.

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SAM LOWE: What's unusual here is for a country to enter willingly into an agreement, and then immediately pretty much say, actually, we don't like the agreement we've just entered into, and rather than resolving that through the formal mechanisms, we will just act unilaterally to change the facts on the ground.

MARX: Johnson, himself, disputes his government is doing anything wrong. But as political opponents in Northern Ireland say, the plan to change domestic law while ignoring an international treaty is unacceptable. Michelle O'Neill heads Northern Ireland's largest political party, Sinn Fein.

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MICHELLE O'NEILL: Today's action by Boris Johnson in Westminster is absolutely reckless. It's disgraceful. It does nothing to serve the interests of the people here. It flies in the face of an international agreement, which he, himself, negotiated.

MARX: Johnson narrowly survived a vote of no confidence last week, reinforcing his reputation as a political survivor. It's unclear if that will be enough to steer him through these current crises, some of his own making. For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx