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First Minister Of Scotland On The Pandemic And Scottish Independence

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Scotland today, newspaper headlines shouted freedom. But read the small print. Another read, don't cry freedom. The headlines are a poke at Scotland's neighbor to the south. England declared so-called Freedom Day and lifted almost all COVID restrictions a few weeks ago. Scotland has charted a more cautious course. Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, says most COVID restrictions will be relaxed next Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICOLA STURGEON: I don't like the term Freedom Day. I think to talk about freedom from an infectious virus or declaring victory over the virus is premature.

KELLY: I spoke with Sturgeon today before a live audience as part of the Aspen Security Forum. We talked about the pandemic and about a freedom that Sturgeon very much does embrace - the push to free Scotland from the United Kingdom. Sturgeon ran and was reelected this past spring on a promise to hold a new referendum on Scottish independence. I asked her, what's the timing?

STURGEON: I gave a commitment to the people of Scotland that my focus, as long as we are in this acute phase of COVID, is on getting us through that and into the recovery phase, but at the right time. When we're in the recovery, in order to equip ourselves best to recover economically and socially, Scotland should have that choice of becoming an independent country.

KELLY: And I suppose that's why I'm asking, as you prepare to lift most restrictions, you're headed toward the recovery phase.

STURGEON: In the election, I said I would want to give people in Scotland that choice. And it is a choice, remember. I've got a very firm view of what I would like that choice to be, but it is a choice. And I would like to offer that choice in the first half of this term of our parliament, which is, you know, by the end of 2023. And we'll judge within that when the best time to offer that choice is. And, you know, I don't take these things for granted, but I'm pretty confident that when that choice is offered to the people of Scotland, partly because of our experience of being disregarded, not least on the issue of Brexit, since the last time we had this choice, I'm pretty confident people in Scotland will vote by majority to become an independent country, when we continue to be the best of friends and cooperate with the other parts of the U.K. but can make our own way in the world and cooperate more fully with countries elsewhere.

KELLY: Does it still feel like quite such a good idea, having seen how difficult it has been to disentangle the U.K. from the EU, an alliance that - you know, a partnership that lasted mere decades? Untangling Scotland from the U.K. is decoupling an alliance that has endured and prospered for 300 years.

STURGEON: It's a very fair question. And I want to address - in short, yes, I do still think it's a good idea. In fact, that view has been reinforced by Brexit. But we've also learned a lot from the Brexit process. Those who argued for Brexit did no preparation. They did no planning. They did no thinking about what Brexit meant in practice. So when the U.K.-wide vote was for the U.K. to leave the EU, nobody had a clue what it meant. Nobody had a clue how to take that referendum result and turn it into practice. And so the whole process was chaotic. And that's why the process of, to use your word, disentanglement became so vexed and so difficult in the Brexit context. I would never want to put forward such an unprepared, underprepared perspective for Scottish independence. At the last...

KELLY: You're saying that Brexit experience does not give you pause because you would be doing more planning and have everything in order.

STURGEON: Does that mean we don't look at that and say, well, how do we make sure we don't make the same mistake? Does it remind us that no process like this is straightforward or easy and we shouldn't pretend to people that it is? There will be challenges and hurdles and pretty difficult problems that we have to solve along the way. But the benefits, I think, will be significant. Independence doesn't mean that Scotland as a country doesn't face challenges or problems, but it puts the finding the solutions to these problems in our own hands.

KELLY: Why has support for independence dropped from the historic high last year? Something like 58% of Scots were in favor. It's a little lower now.

STURGEON: We see fluctuation, and I think we reached a particular high point. It's dipped a bit since then. But it is still a - you know, if we look at this in the historical sweep, at historically high levels, when people in Scotland voted the last time - and I said a moment ago, Scotland wants independence. Of course, when people in Scotland voted for it the last time, a majority voted against that and 45% voted for it. All polls showed now that support for independence is higher. Amongst the younger age groups in Scotland it is, in some opinion polls, as high as 70% support for Scottish independence. But I don't take that for granted. The case has still to be argued and won because Scotland will only become independent if a majority vote for it, not because I want it or my party wants it. We have to convince people that it is the right, the best future for the country.

KELLY: Yeah. Let me turn you to the security implications of this. Given that Scotland's national security and foreign policy has been coordinated through London these past, you know, centuries, from a purely security perspective, without the rest of the U.K., would Scotland not be much diminished on the global stage in terms of influence, in terms of clout?

STURGEON: I think the U.K. has been hugely diminished on the international stage in recent years, largely because of Brexit. The short answer is no, I don't think it would. I would see an independent Scotland as being a constructive, multilateralist partner in the international stage. Often when we talk about nationalist or independence movements, people think about, you know, movements that are insular and parochial. The reverse is true in Scotland. We partly want to be - I partly want Scotland to be independent so that we can play a better role, a bigger role in the world. The rest of the U.K. would continue to be our closest neighbor, obviously, geographically and therefore our closest friend and ally. And the need for us to work together to secure all of us would be real. We also - and this is not uncontroversial in my party. We would want to be members of NATO. We would see our role in the world as positive, constructive, multilateralist and playing our part in creating a more secure and fairer and more peaceful world. And that, I think, is a role that should be welcomed across the rest of the world.

KELLY: What does the special relationship look like if Scotland's relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom, with London were to fundamentally change?

STURGEON: I think Scotland and the United States would continue to be the closest friends and partners and allies. The linked family, business, cultural between Scotland and the United States are long, long, long-standing and I think will last well into the future. And I'm glad to say now I think we've got better relations with the current U.S. administration than we perhaps did with the recent one. But Scotland will be a constructive player on the international stage, I hope, as an independent country well into the future and can play - we're a small country, but can play a part, I hope, in trying to find some of the solutions to the thorny issues and challenges that the world faces right now. And of course, we're about to play host to COP26, which will bring the world together to try to live up to the biggest moral challenge and imperative that all of us face in the form of climate change.

KELLY: That is the leader of Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.