The Scottish Government has published a draft Bill for a second vote on independence.
Constitution Secretary Mike Russell said that while the timing of such a vote should be determined by the next Scottish Parliament, ministers believe people living north of the border “have the right to decide how we recover from the pandemic and what sort of country we wish to build after the crisis”.
The draft Scottish Independence Referendum Bill proposes voters be asked the same question that they were in 2014 – Should Scotland be an independent country?
It proposes that the voting rights in the referendum be extended to match the franchise for Scottish Parliament and local government elections in Scotland, allowing 16-year-olds to take part in the ballot along with foreign nationals who have voting rights in devolved elections.
With the next Holyrood elections due to take place in just over six weeks time, Mr Russell insisted there would be no “democratic justification” for Westminster to continue to block a second referendum if pro-independence parties win a majority of seats.
He said: “If there is a majority in the Scottish Parliament after the forthcoming election for an independence referendum, there can be no democratic justification whatsoever for any Westminster Government to seek to block a post-pandemic referendum.”
The current Scottish Government, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, has already made clear it would want a referendum to happen in the first half of the next Holyrood term.
However, SNP Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has indicated a vote could take place before the end of 2021.
Mr Russell said the Scottish Government had been “laser-focused over the past year on tackling the pandemic”.
And while he insisted that would remain the case, he said the vaccination programme, together with efforts to suppress coronavirus, meant “better times lie ahead”.
Writing in the foreword to the draft legislation, he stated: “The question we face as we come out of the health crisis is this: who has the right to
decide the kind of country Scotland should be after the pandemic?
“Should it be the people who live here, or [the] Westminster governments?”
Mr Russell, speaking as the draft Bill was published, insisted: “The Scottish Government believes it should be the people living in Scotland who have the right to decide how we recover from the pandemic and what sort of country we wish to build after the crisis.
“If Westminster maintains its control, recent history shows what Scotland can expect: an economic recovery hindered by a hard Brexit that is already taking a significant toll and the continued, systematic undermining of devolution, which is weakening our parliament’s powers to maintain food and environmental standards and protect the NHS from post-Brexit trade deals.
“Scotland’s recovery should be made by the people who live here and who care most about Scotland. That is why Scotland’s future should be Scotland’s choice.”
Mr Russell said: “It should be for the next Scottish Parliament to decide the timing of the referendum. So that the recovery from the pandemic can be made in Scotland, the Scottish Government believes it should be held in the first half of the new parliamentary term.”
But Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said: “Publishing a draft referendum bill is simply irresponsible. It is a distraction – we need to focus on continuing to tackle the pandemic and rebuilding our economy.
“The UK Government is supporting people across the UK throughout the pandemic, including supporting jobs with our furlough scheme and rolling out vaccines for people in all parts of the United Kingdom.”
Other pro-UK politicians hit out at the Scottish Government for publishing the draft Bill during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, said: “It is beyond the comprehension of most Scots that Nicola Sturgeon considers this to be a priority.
“Scotland continues to be gripped by the global pandemic and even once normality slowly returns, the shockwaves will be felt for years to come.”
He insisted the motivation for publishing the draft Bill was “as much to do with distracting people from the Sturgeon-Salmond scandal”.
The Tory added: “A responsible government would be entirely focused on Scotland’s post-pandemic recovery, but Sturgeon and her ministers have become detached from reality and the priorities of ordinary families.”
Similarly, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “We are still in a pandemic. Thousands have lost their lives, thousands more have lost their job.
“Reasonable people will think that this is the wrong moment to be pushing a referendum.”
He said: “Dozens of civil servants could have been planning to get cancer services running full speed but they’ve been ordered to do this instead. Or they could have been working on getting funds to business, better mental health services or support for schools.”
But the pro-independence Scottish Green Party welcomed the draft Bill, with co-leader Lorna Slater stating: “Scotland’s future must be in the hands of those who live and work in Scotland, and the Scottish Greens are asking people to vote like our future depends on it this May.
“Our manifesto will support a referendum on our shared future, and polls show we may be crucial in ensuring this Bill passes.”