Boris Johnson cannot veto the right of the people of Scotland to determine their own future, Nicola Sturgeon assured her Scottish National party on Monday — but gave no hint as to what she would do if the UK prime minister continues to block a second independence referendum.
In a speech closing the SNP’s virtual annual party conference, the first minister sought to demonstrate her government’s caring credentials with a promise of a £500 “thank you” for full-time health and adult care workers, while accusing Westminster of seeking to dismantle the UK’s welfare state.
The SNP has been buoyed by recent polls suggesting it is could sweep Scottish parliament elections in May and that voters would back independence if there was a rerun of Scotland’s 2014 referendum on the issue.
At the May elections, the SNP would seek the authority of the people of Scotland — and “no one else’s” — for a legal independence referendum to be held in the early part of the new parliament, Ms Sturgeon said.
“We have a right, if a majority of us want it, to choose that future,” she said. “That inalienable right of self-determination cannot, and will not, be subject to a Westminster veto.”
Some SNP politicians have become publicly impatient with Ms Sturgeon’s insistence that any future referendum should be carried out with the approval of the UK government, with some calling for her to urgently draw up plans for Scotland to go it alone if necessary.
Shortly before Ms Sturgeon began her speech, Angus MacNeil, an SNP MP who has repeatedly called for an independence “Plan B”, questioned why Mr Johnson would bow to a pro-independence victory in May and not to a unilateral demonstration of Scottish public will.
“Frankly . . . the ScotGov position seems confused,” Mr MacNeil tweeted.
Mr Johnson has repeatedly insisted he will not approve a rerun of the 2014 independence referendum, which was billed at the time by SNP leaders as a “once in a generation” event.
The opposition Scottish Conservatives accused Ms Sturgeon of “rank hypocrisy” in her conference speech, saying her government had failed to fully use the social security powers it already had and that its new spending promises were only possible because of the decisions of Tory UK chancellor Rishi Sunak.
“All weekend she’s been talking up another divisive referendum next year while we’re in the middle of a pandemic. It’s completely out of touch with people across Scotland,” said Douglas Ross, Scottish Conservative leader.
SNP delegates on Sunday overwhelming backed plans for a party “national assembly” in January that will discuss “alternative routes” to a second referendum on independence. Some SNP politicians have suggested the government should test the legality of organising a referendum vote on its own, while others argue a decisive Scottish parliament election victory could provide a mandate for leaving the UK.
Ms Sturgeon made no mention in her speech of what options might be considered.
Any attempt to achieve Scottish independence unilaterally could risk constitutional conflict of the sort that has convulsed relations between the Spanish and Catalan governments in recent years.
Ms Sturgeon sought to portray independence as a way to rebuilding Scotland as an “outward-looking”, pro-EU country of kindness and compassion, instead of a nation “built in the image of Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers”.
She challenged Mr Johnson to ensure that the NHS and adult social care workers would not have to pay tax on the £500 payment, which she described as a “one-off thank you for their extraordinary service in this toughest of years”.
The UK Treasury waved aside Ms Sturgeon’s demand, saying income tax on the payments would go to Scotland and the Scottish government had the powers and funding to make it up to recipients “if it wishes”.
The Welsh government announced a special £500 payment for care workers in May, but the UK government has confirmed the money is subject to income tax and national insurance contributions.