SNP minister tells Australian government during Covid second wave: 'We want indy ref two this year'

Simon Johnson
·4-min read
Nicola Sturgeon's government wants to stage a second independence referendum this year - AFP
Nicola Sturgeon's government wants to stage a second independence referendum this year - AFP

One of Nicola Sturgeon's most senior ministers told foreign government officials as the Covid second wave gripped Scotland that the SNP wanted another independence referendum this year, according to secret documents published yesterday.

Mike Russell, the Constitution Secretary, told the Australian High Commissioner in November he hoped a separation vote could be staged by then even though Ms Sturgeon has insisted she is "100 per cent" focused on tackling Covid.

In minutes of the meeting with George Brandis QC, released under the Freedom of Information Act, he said there would be "no democratic justification" for Boris Johnson blocking one after the predicted SNP landslide in May's Holyrood election.

An unrepentant Mr Russell yesterday said he was "happy to repeat it" - despite the discovery since the talks of the mutant strain, which is up to 70 per cent more transmissible.

He tweeted a defiant message shortly after the Scottish Government disclosed a further 78 deaths, the highest daily number during the second wave of the virus.

Watch: Starmer reacts to 'necessary' England national lockdown

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said Ms Sturgeon presented a "false face" during her daily televised Covid briefings by pretending she was solely focused on battling the virus.

But he said Mr Russell had "let slip the reality to overseas officials" and urged her to shelve her separation plans for the rest of 2021.

The disclosure came after Jim Sillars, a former SNP deputy leader, called on Ms Sturgeon at the weekend to "deprioritise" independence and focus instead of tackling the economic devastation caused by the pandemic.

However, the First Minister said the virus was an "opportunity" for Scots to question how they want to be governed in future and "that of course brings to the fore the question of independence."

The minutes, obtained by the Scottish Tories, showed Mr Russell (MR) told George Brandis (GB)the SNP government plans to publish a draft referendum Bill before May's election setting out the timescale for the vote and question on the ballot paper.

"MR noted following the Scottish elections in May 2021 there could then be no democratic justification for UKG (UK Government) to ignore the rights of the people of Scotland to choose their own future," the document said.

"GB inquired about the proposed timing of the referendum post the Scottish election. MR confirmed he would hope a second referendum could be held by end 2021."

Mr Ross said: "This document shows that while virus rates increase rapidly, the SNP Government's official position is to hold indy ref two in 2021. Nothing could be more reckless when our entire focus should be on fighting the pandemic.

"Nicola Sturgeon's self-declared cautious approach obviously doesn't apply to a second independence referendum. When that's the topic, she abandons sense in a heartbeat."

He urged Ms Sturgeon to "denounce" Mr Russell's comments and confirm a U-turn on holding a separation vote this year.

Reacting to the minutes' publication yesterday, Mr Russell tweeted: "I have said it on innumerable occasions and I am happy to repeat it - we need to be able to choose a better way to build back from the pandemic that the U.K. offers with Brexit."

A spokesman for the First Minister said: "It is not for the Tories, to dictate to the people of Scotland what choices they should have over the nation’s future.

"That will only be decided by the people themselves in the coming election – and the First Minister has made clear that her intention would be for a referendum to be held after the pandemic, in the first half of the next Parliament."

Watch: Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine ‘works against rapid spread mutant strains’