Nicola Sturgeon says hard border with England would benefit Scotland

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Nicola Sturgeon  - Getty
Nicola Sturgeon - Getty

Nicola Sturgeon is to kickstart her campaign for a second independence referendum next month, as Michael Gove said the UK Government would not stand in the way of a future vote on Scottish independence if it is the “settled will” of voters.

A draft agenda for the SNP’s conference in September, seen by The Telegraph, shows party members will be asked to endorse proposals for a new independence push in which Scots will be told independence is “essential” to the country’s recovery from Covid-19.

Meanwhile, a separate motion states that legislation for a new referendum should be introduced at Holyrood “at the earliest moment” after a “clear end” to the current public health crisis, in a move that would plunge the UK into a constitutional crisis.

Ms Sturgeon has largely remained silent on independence since the Holyrood elections in May.

However, the leaked draft agenda is heavily focused on independence, and policies a sovereign Scottish state would pursue, sending a clear signal that the First Minister intends to end the constitutional ceasefire and force the issue back to the top of the political agenda.

In a further sign of the independence campaign ramping up on both sides, Boris Johnson is set to visit Scotland this week, as part of plans for him to spend more time north of the border.

Westminster has repeatedly said it will refuse requests from the Scottish Government for the necessary powers to hold another vote.

However, Mr Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, said if there was a public desire for a second referendum, “one would occur”.

Mr Gove told the Sunday Mail: “The principle that the people of Scotland, in the right circumstances, can ask that question again is there.

“I just don’t think that it is right, and the public don’t think it is right, to ask that question at the moment. If it is the case that there is clearly a settled will in favour of a referendum, then one will occur.”

It is understood the Prime Minister’s view is in line with Mr Gove’s stance that Westminster should not stand in the way of a referendum if it is the “settled view” of voters.

However, the Prime Minister remains of the opinion that now is not the right time for another referendum in the wake of the devastation wrought by coronavirus.

A Downing Street source stressed last night: “Such is the scale of the challenge in recovering after the pandemic, the focus across the United Kingdom should be on working together to build back better.”

Mr Johnson publicly said in May that a second independence referendum “in the current context is irresponsible and reckless”.

While the SNP pounced on Mr Gove’s comments as a sign of an impending UK Government u-turn, opinion polls suggest that support for independence has declined in recent months.

Although there is little appetite for a referendum within Ms Sturgeon’s preferred timetable for a vote by 2023, there is more public support in Scotland for one within five years.

Proposals to be debated at the SNP conference will seek to persuade Scots to rally behind the cause.

In plans which were branded “offensive” by critics, SNP members will debate proposals for a new commission it is claimed would show how a border with England could “favourably benefit” an independent Scotland, despite warnings that inevitable trade barriers would prove devastating to businesses.

Other motions claim the state pension age would be lowered to 65 and that everyone would be legally entitled to a job.

There is no detail of how more generous pensions or a universal job guarantee would be paid for, with the most recent figures showing Scotland has a deficit of £15.1 billion and benefits substantially from fiscal transfers from the Treasury, which would end with independence.

Ian Murray, the shadow Scottish Secretary, said the conference agenda showed Ms Sturgeon was preparing to break her pre-election promise to Scottish voters of putting coronavirus recovery ahead of the constitution.

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