LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday rejected the Scottish government's call for a second referendum on independence before Britain leaves the EU -- but did not entirely rule out a vote.
"Now is not the time," she said, arguing that all of Britain's energies should be put into the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, with the withdrawal process due to begin later this month.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been sharply critical of May's plan to pull Britain out of Europe's single market, and on Monday said Scots should have a choice whether to follow that path or go it alone.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) leader suggested the referendum could take place between autumn 2018 and spring 2019 -- before Britain is expected to leave the EU.
"Right now we should be working together, not pulling apart. We should be working together to get that right deal for Scotland, that right deal for the UK," May said.
"That's my job as prime minister and so for that reason I say to the SNP: now is not the time."
However, the Conservative leader refused repeated questions about when the right time might be, leaving the door open for a vote further in the future.
Sturgeon responded with a string of angry tweets, saying May's refusal was "undemocratic" and proof that "the Tories fear the verdict of the Scottish people".
The Scottish leader will seek approval next Wednesday for a new vote in the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, but May's government has the right to block the request.
- 'Too late to choose' -
May said that talking about an independence vote would make it harder to get a good Brexit deal, saying Sturgeon's proposed timetable "wouldn't be fair" to the Scottish people.
"They'd be asked to make a crucial decision without the necessary information, without knowing what the future partnership will be or what the alternative for an independent Scotland would look like," she said.
But Sturgeon hit back that she was not proposing a referendum now, "but when the terms of Brexit (are) clear and before it is too late to choose an alternative path".
She pointed out that the SNP government was re-elected last year with a manifesto stating that it could call a second vote if there was a significant change in the country's circumstances -- such as Brexit.
Earlier in the week, Sturgeon had questioned May's own mandate to govern, noting that she took office after the June vote without an election.
In the EU referendum, the majority of Scotland opted to stay inside the bloc but Britain as a whole voted by 52 percent to leave.
In 2014, Scotland held its own referendum on independence, voting by 55 percent to 45 percent to stay within the United Kingdom, and May has insisted there is no appetite for a second referendum on the matter.
But a long-term study of social attitudes published on Wednesday showed a more complicated picture.
The ScotCen survey found support for independence at a record high of 46 percent -- but euroscepticism was also higher than ever, at 67 percent at the end of last year.
May is expected to start the formal Brexit process later this month, although actual negotiations are not expected to start for several weeks after that.
A bill empowering her to trigger Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which starts a two-year countdown to leaving the bloc, passed parliament on Monday and on Thursday received final approval from Queen Elizabeth II.