Scotland’s government will next year start formal preparations for a second referendum on independence from the UK that it wants to hold before the end of 2023, the country’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Monday.
Her comments, in the closing speech to her Scottish National party’s conference, set the stage for a heightened constitutional stand-off with the UK government.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted his administration in London would not approve a rerun of the 2014 referendum in which Scottish voters backed staying in the UK by 55 to 45 per cent.
Analysts and many in the SNP are deeply sceptical about the possibility of holding an referendum in the next two years. Some members of Scotland’s governing party suspect Sturgeon is in no rush given a fall in support for independence since last year.
But in her speech to the party’s online conference, the SNP leader said the campaign to build support for leaving the UK would “resume in earnest” next year, coronavirus pandemic permitting.
“In the course of next year, I will initiate the process necessary to enable a referendum before the end of 2023,” Sturgeon said.
The first minster gave no details, but has previously said she would submit referendum legislation to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh and dare Westminster to try to block it.
The UK government insists its approval is needed for any Scottish independence plebiscite. But SNP ministers and some legal experts have in the past argued Edinburgh could unilaterally hold an advisory referendum on the issue under existing laws that govern devolutionary arrangements between the UK and Scottish parliaments.
Sturgeon did not set out what she would do if her referendum legislation was successfully challenged in court, saying only that if Johnson had any respect for democracy then he would “let the people decide”.
The SNP and Scottish Greens won a majority of the seats in the Scottish parliamentary elections in May having both campaigned to hold a second vote on independence.
The pro-union parties accused Sturgeon of neglecting public health to pursue her constitutional agenda after Scotland’s first cases of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus were confirmed on Monday
“It’s a disgrace that on the same day as the first minister is talking about the possibility of introducing new restrictions to combat the Omicron variant, her focus is once again on breaking up the UK,” said Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, the second-biggest party at Holyrood.
He added that Scots would be dismayed by Sturgeon’s recommitment to a “divisive independence referendum”.
Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour deputy leader, said it was “deeply disappointing and irresponsible [to be] sowing division between Scotland and the rest of the UK.”
In her speech, Sturgeon accused the UK Conservative government of overturning democratic norms, undermining the devolution settlement and embarking on “permanent conflict with the European Union” since Brexit.
While the UK government had recently cut universal credit payments, the Scottish government would double from April a £10-a-week payment made for children up to the age of six in low-income families and to extend it to those aged up to 16 from the end of next year, she said.
“The Scottish government is taking a different approach. We are determined to lift children out of poverty,” Sturgeon said.