Nicola Sturgeon will launch the nation’s “biggest ever political listening exercise” in Stirling to discover why “soft” No voters rejected independence two years ago.
The First Minister will be joined by her deputy John Swinney as she will set out plans for “a new conversation for a new debate in these new times”.
She has said another referendum is now “highly likely” in the aftermath of the Brexit vote two months ago which saw a majority – 62 per cent – of Scots vote to Remain in the EU. But a group of industry figures, including a former head of the country’s national economic development agency, Scottish Enterprise, and an ex-CBI chief, have called on Ms Sturgeon to “think again”, in a letter to The Scotsman.
“Starting a new independence campaign now will only add fresh uncertainty to Scotland’s future at a time when small and large businesses are looking for stability from all layers of government,” it states.
“The SNP promised it would respect the result of the independence referendum. It signed the Edinburgh Agreement pledging to do just that. It is time for it to honour that agreement. A failure to do so, by re-starting an unwanted referendum campaign, would be tantamount to a major breach of trust by the Scottish Government to the two-million Scots voters who voted No in the 2014 independence referendum.”
The letter is signed by former Scottish Enterprise chief executive Jack Perry, former CBI Scotland boss Sir Iain McMillan, Tony Rush, the ex-chair of construction firm Barr Ltd and Rhona Irving, a former partner at accountancy giant PwC.
They warn that the UK market is worth more to Scotland “by far” than the EU single market and should not be jeopardised. Official figures last week revealed a £14.8 billion black hole in Scotland’s public finances, while investment figures this week showed a 9.2 per cent annual drop.
The new initiative being unveiled today will call on the SNP’s 100,000 members to launch a doorstep campaign aimed at discovering how up to one million Scots who voted No could be persuaded to back leaving the UK in a fresh vote. Questions will be posed on key issues such as the Trident nuclear deterrent, the economy and currency.
Ms Sturgeon will say that the Brexit vote has led to “seismic changes” for Scotland.
“The debate now is whether we should go forward, protecting our place as a European nation, or go backwards, under a Tory government with very different priorities,” she will say.
“And the debate must include an examination of independence in what are profoundly changed circumstances.
“To ensure that the voice of everyone in Scotland is heard in these changed times, I am today launching Scotland’s biggest ever political listening exercise – a new conversation and a new debate for these new times.”
But political opponents are urging the SNP to ditch the constitutional debate.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson backed the call from the industry leaders.
“These leading business figures are speaking for many, many more people who are increasingly concerned about the impact of the SNP’s referendum threat,” she said.
“At this time, more than ever, we need those in government to work together to ensure stability for families and jobs. Instead the SNP has spied an opportunity to kick-start its independence campaign. That is damaging confidence in Scotland.”
If Ms Sturgeon decides to pursue a second referendum, she is likely to get the plans through Holyrood with the backing of the pro-independence Greens. But Labour and the Liberal Democrats have confirmed they will not support Scottish Government proposals for a second independence referendum in the wake of the Brexit vote.
Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who launched her party’s alternative programme for government in Edinburgh yesterday, made it clear that she expects her MSPs to oppose independence. It comes after her deputy leader Alex Rowley suggested that the SNP had a mandate to hold a second vote.
The Nationalists’ manifesto for the Holyrood election did state that the party could go to the country again if there is a “material change” in Scotland’s circumstances, such as “Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”
But Ms Dugdale insisted: “The manifesto is very clear, we’re opposed to a second referendum in the lifetime of this parliament.”