Monday 18 December 2017

'I'm not bluffing': Sturgeon plans new independence poll

First Minister of Scotland and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon speaks as the SNP’s biggest-ever conference began in Glasgow. Photo: John Linton/PA
First Minister of Scotland and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon speaks as the SNP’s biggest-ever conference began in Glasgow. Photo: John Linton/PA

Simon Johnson

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced legislation will be published next week that would allow a Scottish independence referendum to take place before Brexit.

Yesterday she warned British Prime Minister Theresa May that she is not bluffing.

Ms Sturgeon relieved the pressure from her party's rank-and-file and Alex Salmond to call a re-run of the 2014 vote by announcing at the SNP conference in Glasgow that the Scottish Government will publish a draft bill for public consultation.

To rapturous applause and cheers from the delegates, she said this would allow another referendum to take place before the two-year Article 50 process for Britain leaving the EU is completed in 2019.

Ms Sturgeon warned Ms May not to "think for one second that I'm not serious" about triggering another referendum if Scotland and the UK is not kept in the single market.

However, she pointedly did not guarantee that another vote on independence would actually take place and it also emerged for the first time that her government will seek a deal with Westminster that would see Scotland remain in the UK.

She will present Ms May with a series of demands for powers including flexibility to allow more immigration north of the border and to somehow remain in the EU single market while staying in the UK.

Ms Sturgeon said she would judge whether Scotland's interests were being protected before deciding whether to proceed with another referendum. However, her spokesmen could later provide little detail on specifically what concessions would be required for this test to be met.

Her intervention came after Alex Neil, an SNP grandee and one of her former ministers, stated that Ms Sturgeon should focus on winning "neo-independence" by seizing powers coming back from Brussels instead of a second referendum.

Scotland's opposition parties said Ms Sturgeon's speech showed her priority was "to divide our nation once again" despite there being severe problems with the Scottish economy, NHS and education system.

The first minister declared in the hours after June's Brexit vote that a second independence referendum was "highly likely" but has since rowed back amid opinion polls showing a majority of Scots are opposed to a re-run and would reject separation again.

She has since shifted the goalposts by arguing that remaining in the EU single market is vital for Scotland's future.

Ms Sturgeon told the conference: "A hard Brexit will change the UK fundamentally. A UK out of the single market - isolated, inward looking, haemorrhaging jobs, investment and opportunities - will not be the same country that Scotland voted to stay part of in 2014.

"If that's the insecure, unstable prospect we face as part of the UK, then no one will have the right to deny Scotland the chance to choose a better future."

She has previously announced that a referendum bill would be published and she said: "I am determined that Scotland will have the ability to reconsider the question of independence - and to do so before the UK leaves the EU - if that is necessary to protect our country's interests.

"So I can confirm today that the Independence Referendum Bill will be published for consultation next week." Referring to the internal row in the SNP over whether to call a second referendum, she said there was "not a day that passes just now without someone advising me to hurry up" or to slow down.

But she said she would be guided by one test: "What is best for the people of Scotland?"

Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, said: "This confirms that the SNP's priority is not education, or healthcare, or tackling poverty. Nicola Sturgeon's top priority is to divide our nation once again.

"But our country is already divided following the Tories' reckless Brexit gamble and we should not be seeking further divisions. Our economy is in trouble, and the last thing we need is the uncertainty of another independence referendum."

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said: "Her comments show she has given up on speaking for Scotland and is now solely playing to the SNP gallery. This isn't the action of a first minister of Scotland but an SNP fundamentalist who puts independence first, last and always." (© Daily Telegraph London)

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