Brexit secretary Michael Russell has raised the prospect of a second independence referendum without the approval of Westminster.
The SNP leadership is facing growing pressure from both grassroots activists and parliamentarians for a more urgent approach to another vote after tens of thousands of Nationalists rallied in Edinburgh at the weekend.
Prime Minister Theresa May has rejected calls for a second referendum, insisting “now is not the time” despite backing from the Scottish Parliament for such a vote.
At the SNP conference in Glasgow yesterday, Mr Russell told a fringe meeting that an alternative route to giving Scots a say on independence without the agreement of the Prime Minister must now be explored.
He said: “If the unionist parties say you can’t have a referendum, which is what the debate has been in the past few weeks, then there has to be a discussion about what happens next. That is simply anti-democratic.”
Mr Russell added: “There has to be a healthy discussion about the ways in which – not that there’s any sleight of hand or anything like it – but the democratic way in which Scotland could say it wishes to make a choice and that’s a legitimate discussion to have.
“The SNP’s position is clear. We think that should be by means of a referendum.”
Mr Russell insisted a second vote on leaving the UK would be staged, despite the current constitutional set-up.
“Devolution is a highly unsatisfactory set of circumstances, particularly a section 30 order, which is required in order to hold a referendum which requires agreement from both Houses of Parliament,” he said. “That’s a very difficult situation to get, but nothing is insuperable. I’m absolutely confident that we will be able to give the people of Scotland a choice at some future date. But let’s not limit ourselves by trying to create barriers in our minds to that happening because we’re going to do it.”
Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil also told delegates “another way” must be found to stage a referendum if the necessary section 30 from Westminster, which has power over the constitution, was withheld. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she wants to stage a second independence referendum regardless of any Brexit deal reached between Westminster and Brussels.
In her keynote speech to conference today, Ms Sturgeon is expected to tell supporters that independence offers “optimism and hope” against the “despair” of Brexit.
She had been due to set out her plans at this autumn conference, but this now seems unlikely because the final terms of Brexit remain unclear and there are growing concerns of a “no-deal” departure, which would prove damaging for Scotland’s economy.
She will tell delegates: “The Westminster Government stumbles from day to day and disaster to disaster. It’s hard to watch that unfolding calamity and feel anything other than despair. So it is up to us – now more than ever – to offer optimism and hope.
“Just think how much more hope will be possible when we take Scotland’s future into Scotland’s hands and become an independent country.
“An independent Scotland, just as Scotland is now, will be a beacon for progressive values – equality, opportunity, diversity and fairness. Indeed those values feel more important today than ever before in my lifetime.”
Ms Sturgeon is to set out her plans for a second referendum when the outcome of the Brexit negotiations becomes clear. Asked if a fresh independence vote could happen during this parliamentary term, she told STV: “By definition, because I haven’t taken the decision, anything, including that, is still possible.”
The First Minister also rejected suggestions from the party’s Home Affairs spokeswoman at Westminster, Joanna Cherry, that independence could be declared through a general election victory for the SNP in Scotland.
Mr MacNeil told delegates the party should forge ahead with a referendum even if without Westminster’s approval, after weekend polls showed support for independence could be as high as 52 per cent under a hard Brexit.
He said: “That is without even campaigning. Another 17 per cent was added the last time we campaigned. This time when the SNP gets going, there will be a lot more gained. If we can’t make this under a section 30 order, then we have to make it another way. We cannot dither at this point. We cannot be like the Jacobites in Derby who let the opportunity pass as they did in 1745 and 1746. We have to go forward.”
Pro-union organisation Scotland in Union’s chief executive Pamela Nash dismissed Ms Sturgeon’s comments.
“There is nothing optimistic about Scotland leaving the United Kingdom,” she said.
“The best future for our country is as part of the UK and that’s a belief shared by the majority of people in Scotland.
“Nicola Sturgeon should use her conference speech today to end the uncertainty and take a divisive and unnecessary second independence referendum off the table.”