Ex SNP minister urges FM to drop 'high risk' de facto independence vote plan

Former Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil. Photo Gordon Terris. <i>(Image: Newsquest)</i>
Former Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil. Photo Gordon Terris. (Image: Newsquest)

THE former SNP cabinet minister Alex Neil has urged Nicola Sturgeon to withdraw her 'high risk' strategy to use the next general election as a 'de facto' referendum.

Mr Neil, who served as health secretary and social justice secretary in the Scottish Government before standing down from Holyrood last year, called for the First Minister to drop the policy, which would require the independence parties to win more than 50 per cent of votes.

The threshold was just achieved in the 2015 general election when the SNP and the Scottish Greens together won 51.3 per cent of the total votes cast in Scotland.

Writing in the Sunday Times today Mr Neil called for Ms Sturgeon to instead build support for independence and proceed with the process which lay behind the 2014 referendum.

Ahead of that vote the then Prime Minister David Cameron and then First Minister Alex Salmond agreed the terms of an independence referendum after the SNP won a majority of seats in Holyrood in the 2011 elections.

"There is a democratic route to achieving independence. David Cameron was forced into conceding the 2014 referendum by the scale of the SNP’s election victory in the 2011 Scottish parliament elections. People power prevailed then. It must do so again," wrote Mr Neil.

"The First Minister should abandon her plan to make the 2024 UK general election into a “de facto referendum”. Such a strategy is unnecessarily high risk."

He added: "Far better to follow the precedent set in 2014, when the principle was established that an overall majority for the SNP in a Scottish parliament election won on the back of a mandate for an independence referendum must be respected by Westminster.

"Winning an overall SNP majority in the Scottish parliament would make it impossible for Westminster to refuse a second independence referendum.

"In 1954 Harold Macmillan said that the UK “must be the union of the wedding ring not the handcuff”. This sentiment has been echoed by Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Michael Gove and even Alister Jack, the current Scottish secretary.

"When it becomes blatantly obvious that independence has become the settled will of the Scottish people, Westminster will yield to our wishes."

Mr Neil said the SNP and the wider independence movement shuld now be seeking to build popular support for independence to such a level of support that it could not be ignored by the UK Government.

He said that aim could be achieved by the independence movement speaking "with a united voice" and by the parties publishing a new prospectus for independence next year.

The SNP veteran dismissed the papers published in recent months by the Scottish Government updating the Yes case as "very poor".

"The SNP, Greens, Alba and pro-independence individuals must all work together under an independence umbrella organisation to deliver victory," he said.

"Secondly, we must publish early in 2023 an independence prospectus which provides credible answers to the key questions voters will ask about the meaning of independence, including borders, currency, migration, debt, deficits, trading arrangements with the rest of the UK and the wider world etc.

"This prospectus shouldn’t be drafted by civil servants but by the independence movement. It would replace the three independence papers produced recently by the Scottish government, which were very poor and will do nothing to recruit more people to the independence cause."

Mr Neil went on to add that the parties must spell out "an ambitious policy programme for the first five years of an independent Scotland" to demonstrate what difference independence will make to the Scottish people and urged the current government "to get a grip on policy delivery and try to regain its reputation for competence".

Ahead of the Supreme Court ruling last week Stephen Noon, the chief strategist of the Yes campaign in 2014, called for a pause in the campaign to allow a "conversation" across Scotland on the country's future.

"For me I think there is a process we need to go through before there is a referendum. We've spoken about the settled will of the Scottish people around devolution," he said.

"If I think back to the creation of the Scottish Parliament there was a process of identifying that settled will. A civic Scotland process, a cross party process.

"So for me we need to have a referendum at some point to decide this issue but it should come after a process of conversation in Scotland where we are actually working out what is we want for our country."

And writing on Twitter yesterday the land campaigner and former Scottish Greens MSP Andy Wightman said he wouldn't support a second independence referendum until there was sustained support for a new vote.

He also took issue with the language being used by the First Minister who is now calling the independence movement "Scotland's democracy movement".

Addressing a rally outside Holyrood on Wednesday, she thanked her “fellow supporters of Scottish democracy” for making their voices heard “in support of the democracy of our nation”.

She said: “We are here as representatives of Scotland’s independence movement, a movement that will grow in numbers with every day that passes. But today our independence movement also becomes Scotland’s democracy movement.

“Today, it has been clarified - something that many of us suspected but hoped was not the case - but it has been clarified today that the United Kingdom is not a voluntary partnership of nations."

Mr Wightman noted: “I have never supported an indyref in 2023 and I don’t support one at all until there is sustained support for it (referendums should be about affirming popular opinion not taking a divided electorate marginally over the 50 per cent threshold).

"I am thus genuinely shocked to be told by the First Minister of Scotland that I am (by implication) not part of ‘Scotland’s democracy movement’. I have been arguing for better (especially local) democracy all my adult life.”