In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Angus Robertson said his party’s first priority was to protect Scotland’s membership of the European single market. As such, he promised to continue pressing the prime minister to hammer out a special Brexit deal for his nation.
“There may only be days, may only be weeks, but where all of our efforts are currently focused is trying to convince the UK government to come to a compromise agreement protecting Scotland’s place in Europe,” he said.
“If that road runs out and if we have to have that referendum, we will be turning our attention to making sure that we are making the case publicly, intellectually and in every other way so people understand the choice of a hard Tory Brexit Britain or a Scotland able to to maintain its relations with the rest of Europe.”
Robertson indicated that failure to act by the prime minister made the possibility of independence ever more likely.
“If the UK government genuinely believes in a United Kingdom [it must] take the needs, interests, concerns of the different parts of the UK seriously.
“The Tories are boxing themselves into a very dangerous corner. For a party that claims to be a unionist party they are making it very difficult for people in Scotland, who are not traditionally SNP voters, to look to the future of a Tory-run Britain and accepting that as our best way forward.”
Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, hit back. “These are surreal comments. How can he say the SNP is focussed on negotiations with the UK government when Nicola Sturgeon has just broken off those talks to unilaterally declare another divisive referendum on independence?” she asked.
“Everyone knows where the SNP has invested all its attention since the EU referendum – in trying to break up Britain.”
She also criticised the SNP for not setting out how it would re-enter the EU, claiming the party was “trying to have it both ways”.
Robertson’s comments came as the SNP’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, indicated that she could delay a fresh Scottish independence referendum until after Brexit, in the hope of a deal with May on its timing.
After saying on Monday the vote must be offered before the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, the first minister signalled she could stage it after that date if more time was needed to confirm the precise terms for the UK’s Brexit deal.
In a statement issued on Tuesday after the Scottish government cabinet formally endorsed her decision to stage a second referendum, Sturgeon insisted there was a “cast-iron mandate” for the poll.
She added: “And the vote must take place within a timeframe to allow an informed choice to be made – when the terms of Brexit are clear but before the UK leaves the European Union, or shortly afterwards.”
Her intervention followed warnings from figures inside Downing street that the government would not accept the timetable of a second independence referendum between Autumn 2016 and Spring 2017. A vote before EU negotiations was described as the “worst possible timing”, as May accused the SNP of “constitutional gameplaying with the future of the UK”.
Sources denied reports that the prime minister had delayed invoking article 50 until the end of the month as a result of the SNP’s intervention, claiming that had always been the plan.
And the Guardian can reveal that May is planning to use the next two weeks to complete a tour of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in an attempt to build consensus before firing the starting gun on Brexit. One source said the plan had always been to respond to the Scottish government’s white paper, although they also made clear that there would be no differential treatment for Scotland.
Despite his offer to May, Robertson made clear that he was deeply sceptical about the prospect of any deal and said the starting gun on the referendum campaign had already been fired with a new website.
“We may see the prime minister travel to different parts of the UK and to show that she is listening but she won’t actually reach an agreement on the substance of things,” he said, arguing that would be “unimaginable” for the prime minister to reject the referendum demand if the Scottish government votes for it next week.
“If anybody whether in UK government or fourth estate in Whitehall thinks that somehow this is going to have anything other than massive repercussions to stand in the way of democracy,” he said, in an interview to be broadcast on the Guardian’s Politics Weekly Podcast.
He said any attempt to block the national vote would appear to be because the UK government thought it would lose.
With polls suggesting that an independence race would be on a knife-edge, Robertson said there was evidence of a number of people shifting their vote since the previous referendum, in which the no vote was 55%.
“One of the things that has made a lot of people change their minds from no in 2014 to yes at the present time are people who are internationally minded, who do want to live in a country that welcomes visitors and people who choose to live in this country that when people come seeking refuge they should be offered refuge. So this is about more than our relationship with Europe – it is about our values as a country,” he said.
Robertson argued that the choice the yes campaign would offer voters would be not just about Europe but about Scottish values that he said were “frankly outward looking ... not narrow-minded and rejecting of refugees and people who have come from other shores”.
Asked if that was how he perceived views elsewhere in the UK, he said “I think that is the view of the UK government” before pointing out that he had been born in Wimbledon and that Scotland had people from a number of other countries.
“This is about not where we come from but where we are going,” he said.
Asked whether an independent Scotland would use sterling or the euro, and if it would seek full EU membership or the Norway model, Robertson said the party would set out detailed plans during the official campaign.
“I think when we get to the stage of a referendum process proceeding we are going to have a debate across the full gamut of what type of Scotland we seek. Everyone understands there was a detailed white paper into 2014,” he said, arguing that similar details about currency, the economy and so on would be made available again.
But other parties have criticised the SNP for failing to set out details about how it hoped to retain membership, while May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have claimed there is no appetite to rerun the vote.
The SNP could also face a challenge with eurosceptic voter as while independence polls have been neck and neck other research suggests Scottish voters oppose full EU membership, which could involve eventually joining the euro.
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, whose members are vocal critics of EU membership, will oppose independence if that leads Scotland to joining the common fisheries policy.