A senior SNP MP has said he would welcome an independence referendum this year – but insisted that a vote will only take place once the pandemic is over.
Tommy Sheppard, who is the SNP’s constitutional affairs spokesman at Westminster, also said the phrase “once in a generation”, used in 2014, was not a promise that the issue would “go away”.
His remarks came after the party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford suggested that a vote on the issue could take place “as early as late 2021”.
The House of Commons also voted 369 to 55, majority 314, in favour of a motion amended by the Government which stated it would be “irresponsible” to hold a referendum during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking during a debate on the forthcoming Scottish Parliament elections and the country’s constitutional future, Mr Sheppard told MPs: “Let’s be entirely clear about this, no-one, and I mean no-one, is suggesting that we have a referendum campaign during the pandemic.
“We will have to have it… I tell you now, no-one is suggesting that. We will have to have that put behind us and be moving into a recovery phase before that can happen.”
Intervening on Mr Sheppard, Scottish Conservative Party leader Douglas Ross (Moray) said: “I’m interested in what (Mr Sheppard) said because his leader, (Mr Blackford) has said an independence referendum could be held this year.
“The Scottish National Party have put aside £600,000 of party funds to fight a referendum campaign this year. Are they wrong or is the honourable gentleman wrong?”
Responding, Mr Sheppard said: “If it’s possible to have it later this year because the pandemic is over and we have moved beyond it, then I would welcome that.
“I don’t speculate on whether it’s the end of this year or the beginning of next year.
“The principle I’m advocating is that we will not be launching or fighting a referendum campaign whilst the pandemic is still extant and whilst we have the restrictions, the social restrictions on people, that are mandated by the public health emergency, that is a fact.”
Mr Sheppard also addressed the term “once in a generation”, which was used ahead of the independence referendum held in 2014.
He said: “The Prime Minister has repeated this ad nauseum over the last 12 months and in some of the iterations in which he speaks you would think that those words were on the ballot paper on September 18 2014.
“I accept that the phrase ‘once in a generation’ was part of the debate, but let us at least be honest with each other about the context in which that was said.
“It was said invariably by those who were proposing a Yes vote for independence as a caution to their supporters that they might not get another chance.
“It was not made as a promise or qualification to those who opposed independence that it was going to go away forever.”
Scotland Office minister David Duguid criticised the SNP for using the Commons debate to “promote separation” rather than focus on the pandemic recovery.
He said: “The people of our United Kingdom want and expect us to focus on fighting Covid-19. They rightly expect us to focus on protecting jobs with furlough payments, ensuring our children catch-up on their missed education and finding jobs for our young people.”
Mr Duguid said Scots expect their two governments to work together, adding: “Yet in the middle of this the SNP has tabled this motion for an Opposition Day Debate not to discuss what more we can do to work constructively together to drive our recovery from Covid-19, but instead to promote separation and a pursuit of another divisive and damaging referendum on independence.”
Mr Duguid concluded: “We should be talking about building up, not breaking up our country.”
Shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray, asked about Labour’s position on a referendum and what page of their Scottish election manifesto the detail will be included on, said: “Well it won’t be in our manifesto because our manifesto will be a national recovery plan for the nation in terms of Covid.”
Conservative former Scotland secretary David Mundell said the SNP are displaying “arrogance” by vowing to press ahead with another independence referendum “regardless”.