Yes activists 'being lied to' by SNP leaders with claim that referendum could be held in 2021

Dan Sanderson
·5-min read
Ian Blackford said a referendum "must" take place in 2021 - Vickie Flores/ Shutterstock
Ian Blackford said a referendum "must" take place in 2021 - Vickie Flores/ Shutterstock

SNP leaders have been accused of lying to their own activists by claiming that an independence referendum can be held within seven months of the Holyrood election.

Ahead of the SNP conference, which begins on Saturday, Nicola Sturgeon refused to rule out holding a referendum next year.

She will tell supporters today that her ambition of breaking up the UK is in "clear sight" and will urge members to "focus all our efforts" on independence. 

Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, has said a repeat of the referendum “must” take place in 2021 while Mike Russell, the senior cabinet minister, has also backed the timetable.

However, an academic from the University of Edinburgh’s non-partisan Centre for Constitutional Change rubbished the timetable, saying it was highly unlikely that a vote could be organised next year, even if the UK Government reversed its position and allowed one.

Nicola Sturgeon will urge activists to focus all their efforts on independence - RUSSELL CHEYNE/Reuters
Nicola Sturgeon will urge activists to focus all their efforts on independence - RUSSELL CHEYNE/Reuters

UK ministers have repeatedly and categorically ruled out allowing a vote to take place, even if the SNP wins a majority.

Ian Murray, the Labour MP and Shadow Scottish Secretary, said: “Nicola Sturgeon is playing to her crowd, as she does at every conference.

“She knows there can’t be a referendum next year, but she wants to generate a grievance when it doesn’t happen.

“This is the worst type of politics and demonstrates that her priorities are all wrong. She should be focused on recovering from the pandemic, not her obsession with dividing Scotland.”

Ms Sturgeon has faced criticism from within her own party for failing to deliver a new referendum, having twice abandoned plans to hold a second vote. 

She previously pledged to hold one by early 2018, but ditched the plan after the SNP suffered heavy losses in the 2017 general election. 

She later claimed a plebiscite would be held in the current parliamentary term, but dumped those plans due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This week, she set out a third timetable, claiming a new referendum should be held in the “early stages” of the next Holyrood parliament, saying she had “not ruled in or out” a 2021 vote.

However, even if Boris Johnson did immediately back down and open talks with the SNP in the face of a nationalist majority in May, there would have to be negotiations over the terms of the vote.

The Electoral Commission would have to test the referendum question, a process that would take between 10 and 12 weeks, as well as deciding on lead campaigns, a potentially complex process.

An official campaign period would also have to be held before referendum day, which in 2014 was 16 weeks.

There have been calls within the SNP for Ms Sturgeon to stage a ‘wildcat’ vote, but she has repeatedly said she wants to follow the same “gold standard” process set for the 2014 referendum.

Dean Lockhart, the Scottish Conservative constitution spokesman, said: “The SNP are clearly throwing red meat to satisfy the baying hordes of their party who want to divide Scotland all over again at the earliest opportunity.

“Their relentless push for another referendum in the middle of a pandemic could not be more reckless."

Coree Brown Swan, a University of Edinburgh academic and a member of the Centre for Constitutional Change, said there was a 23 month gap between the Edinburgh Agreement, which allowed the 2014 referendum to take place, and the actual vote.

While she said the passage of a referendum act at Holyrood last year and other factors would mean a future referendum could take place within a shorter timeframe, she said claims of a 2021 poll were unrealistic.

“I don’t see practically how that [a 2021 referedum] would happen,” she said. “Seven months to negotiate with the UK Government and secure an agreement, which it is not clear would be forthcoming, and hold a referendum does feel like a short timeframe, especially when we don’t know what the status of the pandemic will be by then.

“There are other practical questions, you wouldn’t want to hold a referendum in December for example. I wouldn’t profess to have a crystal ball, but it does feel like a less realistic timeframe.

“I understand the rationale - placating supporters who are quite anxious to have a referendum. But from a practical perspective it would be difficult to achieve.”

Ms Sturgeon is expected to tell supporters today that independence is in “clear sight”. 

For the first time ever, a string of opinion polls over recent months have suggested a majority of Scots support leaving the UK.

She will urge supporters to attempt to convince others of the merits of independence “with cool heads and patient persuasion”.

However, some activists and SNP politicians are agitating the party to set out a "plan B" for holding another vote, should the Prime Minister maintain his opposition.

Opening the conference, the First Minister is expected to say: “Scotland is now a nation on the cusp of making history. Independence is in clear sight – and with unity of purpose, humility and hard work I have never been so certain that we will deliver it.

“The people of Scotland have the right to choose their future. Let’s now focus all our efforts on making sure we bring about that better country they and future generations deserve.”