First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has vowed she’ll stick to her plans regarding a second independence referendum.
The SNP leader said she would ensure the timing is right and hit out at the Conservatives “disgraceful” decision to “plough ahead” with Brexit as the pandemic rages.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross and his LibDem counterpart Willie Rennie each called on Sturgeon to abandon her referendum.
MSPs have already passed the Referendums (Scotland) Act which governs polling rules, but they must agree another Act on the date and wording for any ballot. In her latest Programme for Government, Sturgeon said she’d publish a draft bill on those details, “taking account of the development of the Covid-19 pandemic”, before the next election in May.
Douglas Ross, The leader of the Conservatives at Holyrood, called that aim “absurd” and accused Sturgeon of diverting civil servants from the Covid fight, while Rennie said: “If the country is to be locked down, so should the campaign for independence.”
But in a strongly worded salvo, Sturgeon’s spokesperson told The National: “No-one is proposing holding an independence referendum in the middle of the pandemic – unlike the Tories, who have disgracefully ploughed ahead with Brexit amid the Covid crisis.
“It is not for the Tories, or the LibDems – who are now a pro-Brexit party – to dictate to the people of Scotland what choices they should have over the nation’s future. That will only be decided by the people themselves in the coming election.
“We have a Programme for Government commitment to publish a bill before the end of this current parliament, to set out the terms of a future referendum clearly and unambiguously. Such a referendum will allow the people of Scotland to choose who is best to lead them out of the current crisis and to oversee the rebuilding of the country after the pandemic.”
Earlier, Ross urged the Scottish Government to drop its referendum aim because “so many other more important topics need parliament and government’s attention”, saying: “There is so little time left in this term and the parliament’s essential work will clearly be limited by the impact of Covid-19 restrictions.
“It would be irresponsible in the extreme to keep diverting precious time and civil servants’ attention away from the most important issues – like the vaccine delivery, education and protecting jobs – and onto another divisive referendum instead. We can’t waste time on the same constitutional arguments of the last 13 years.”
Willie Rennie echoing Ross, said: “That is the wrong priority for government. That work and any other work on independence should cease without delay.”
The comments came after Sturgeon told Channel 4 News she “put campaigning and planning for an independence referendum on hold” at the outset of the health crisis, saying: “As we start to recover from this, all societies, all countries are asking themselves ‘what do we want to recover to, what changes do we want, what kind of countries do we want to be?’
“It’s an opportunity to tackle some of the deep-seated issues and problems like inequality and poverty and for Scotland that involves the consideration of who holds the levers, where do the powers lie? And that of course brings to the fore the question of independence, being in charge of our own future – part of that, becoming again part of the European family of nations.”
Sturgeon added: “That’s not a distraction from that process of recovery, that’s part and parcel of making sure we are deciding as a country in Scotland what we recover to.”
Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie said: “I’m not sure we need advice from the football referee and part-time politician Douglas Ross.”
He continued: “He may not have had his eye on the ball, but his party colleagues have consistently prioritised the constitutional vandalism of Brexit ahead of any other issue over the last year, while also setting out to wreck devolution.
“Only the people of Scotland have a right to determine Scotland’s future, and it’s clear that a growing majority of them support independence.
“That’s before the campaign even begins.”