Indyref2 battle intensifies amid fresh UK Government drive to save the union

The UK government has launched a fresh drive to save the union with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said to have held talks with former prime minister Gordon Brown on strategies to combat the SNP.

It comes as the SNP published its ‘roadmap to a referendum’ over the weekend which could see the party stage its own poll which would then be open to a court challenge by the UK Government.

A Panelbase poll for The Sunday Times meanwhile showed that most UK voters expect Scotland to be independent by 2030.

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In a sign the battle over the constitution has escalated, a committee established by the UK Government dedicated to shoring up support for the union is set to act on a five-step programme to tackle the SNP’s dominance ahead of the Holyrood elections in May.

Among the plans reported yesterday were highlighting the benefits of the Union during the Covid-19 pandemic

Among the plans reported yesterday were highlighting the benefits of the union during the Covid-19 pandemic, to only consider further devolution at a later point as part of wider UK reforms, and allowing the SNP to fight internally around independence tactics. UK Government plans also include closely controlling the timing and terms of any referendum and potentially adding a third, devo-max option to the ballot.

The paper also reported that Oliver Lewis, a former Vote Leave campaigner, will lead the efforts to promote the union.

And it emerged yesterday that Mr Gove had engaged in talks with Mr Brown over how to halt the momentum of Scottish nationalism as a repeat of the tactics used by the No campaign in 2014.

That was branded a “desperate” move by SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, while First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Boris Johnson was “frightened of democracy” on the question of another referendum.

Ms Sturgeon invoked the spirit of Robert Burns on The Andrew Marr Show, branding the Prime Minister a “cowerin’ timorous beastie” for continuing to block the “will of the Scottish people”.

Mr Blackford said: “Not content with setting up a ‘Union Unit’ in the Cabinet Office to pump out unionist propaganda like slurry the Tories are now setting up a committee at the heart of government to fight against Scotland’s right to choose independence.

“There is nothing the Tories at Westminster will do to stop the people of Scotland expressing their democratic will and now they are handing out taxpayers money to prominent Vote Leave campaigners – Vote Leave is now wagging the tail of the unionist dog.

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“Not only that, but the Better Together band is being tuned up again as Michael Gove reaches a desperate hand out to Gordon Brown.

“The Scottish people will see right through this attempt to deny their democratic right from both the Tories and Labour, we have seen this show before. With the litany of broken promises made by both the Better Together and Vote Leave campaigns, people in Scotland will know to expect more of the same this time round.”

In an interview on The Andrew Marr Show, Ms Sturgeon said she believed Mr Johnson is “frightened of democracy”.

Challenged on the claims a new referendum should take place in 40 years, she said: “It’s Robert Burns’ birthday tomorrow, our annual Burns Day.

“And when I hear Boris Johnson talk about this I bring to mind a Burns poem: ‘Cowerin’ timorous beastie, what a panic’s in thy breastie’.

“He’s frightened of democracy. The polls now show that a majority of people in Scotland now want independence.

“If the SNP win the Scottish election in a few months’ time on the proposition of giving the Scottish people that choice then what democrat could rightly stand in the way of that?

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"Boris Johnson clearly just fears the verdict of the will of the Scottish people.”

The First Minister was also asked whether she would hold an advisory “home-made Scottish referendum” if the SNP wins in the upcoming elections.

Ms Sturgeon said: “I want to have a legal referendum, that’s what I’m going to seek the authority of the Scottish people for in May.

“And if they give me that authority that’s what I intend to do.”

On Saturday, the SNP published its “roadmap to a referendum” ahead of the party’s national assembly where policy is discussed between members.

The plan, which sets out a so-called ‘Plan B’ if the UK Government refuses to consent to a second referendum, states that the Scottish Government would be willing to take the UK Government to court over the issue in a clear concession to the more fundamentalist wing of the SNP.

Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross later hit out at the plan ahead of the budget on Thursday.

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He said: “The SNP Government must use this Budget to put our economic recovery before their dangerous obsession with another divisive referendum.

"The First Minster’s refusal to rule out a wildcat vote is grossly negligent and inflammatory.

“It would be reckless and irresponsible of the SNP to try and force through a referendum as early as this year when all our focus should be on fighting the pandemic and rebuilding Scotland.

“This must be a Budget in the national interest, not the nationalist interest. Making indyref2 the priority is a huge distraction from the massive challenges at hand.”

The UK Government said the issue of Scottish independence was settled “decisively” in 2014.

A spokeswoman said earlier: “Now more than ever, we should be pulling together to strengthen our United Kingdom, instead of trying to separate it.”

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