SNP publishes 'reckless' bill for second independence referendum by end of 2023

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Simon Johnson
·3 min read
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Alex Salmond during the final days of the 2014 referendum campaign - Getty Images Europe
Alex Salmond during the final days of the 2014 referendum campaign - Getty Images Europe

Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of indulging in a "reckless distraction" from the pandemic after her government unveiled a draft bill for another independence referendum by the end of 2023.

The SNP plans to table the legislation after May's Holyrood election if they win a majority themselves, or in conjunction with the pro-separation Scottish Greens.

Ms Sturgeon then plans to make a formal request to Boris Johnson for the requisite powers for a legal referendum and, if he refuses, pass the bill anyway and challenge the UK Government to take her to court.

SNP ministers said a vote on breaking up the UK would let people decide what kind of country they wanted to build “once the public health crisis is over”, with the timing to be decided by the next Scottish Parliament.

But they made clear their preference that it be staged in the first half of the five-year parliament, meaning by November 2023 at the latest.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, accused her of a "dangerous misjudgement" and warned that "even once normality slowly returns, the shockwaves will be felt for years to come."

Around 100,000 Scots are thought to have lost their jobs during the pandemic, with a further 400,000 having been furloughed. NHS waiting lists are at a record high after many procedures were suspended last year.

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, expressed incredulity that "dozens of civil servants" had been ordered to draw up the legislation instead of working on getting cancer services running or paying support to businesses hit by lockdown.

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The draft Scottish Independence Referendum Bill, published ahead of Holyrood breaking up for the election this week, was only three pages long and proposed using the same question on the ballot paper as in 2014.

The Yes / No format of the questions - Should Scotland be an independence country - was seen as favouring the nationalists as it gave them the 'positive' choice.

Polls conducted since using the Leave / Remain format adopted in the Brexit referendum have shown markedly lower support for independence. However, the Bill states the Electoral Commission would have to consider the intelligibility and fairness of the question.

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Unveiling the bill, Mike Russell, the SNP's Constitution Secretary, said: "The Scottish Government believes it should be the people living in Scotland who have the right to decide how we recover from the pandemic and what sort of country we wish to build after the crisis."

He added: "If there is a majority in the Scottish Parliament after the forthcoming election for an independence referendum there can be no democratic justification whatsoever for any Westminster government to seek to block a post-pandemic referendum.”

But Mr Ross said: "It is beyond the comprehension of most Scots that Nicola Sturgeon considers this to be a priority. Scotland continues to be gripped by the gobal pandemic.

"The SNP Government is mired in sleaze with nothing left to offer except yet more division and grievance. The motivation for this is as much to do with distracting people from the Sturgeon-Salmond scandal."

Mr Rennie said: "Holy moly, they've had people working on the referendum instead of dealing with the pandemic."

Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, said: "Publishing a draft referendum bill is simply irresponsible. It is a distraction - we need to focus on continuing to tackle the pandemic and rebuilding our economy."