A quickfire vote on Scottish independence is on course to be staged within Nicola’s Sturgeon’s 2020 timescale, with MSPs expected to back new laws by the end of the month which pave the way for a second referendum.
A referendum could be held within ten and a half weeks of it being called by SNP ministers when new laws are passed at Holyrood, Scottish Government Constitution Secretary Michael Russell has hinted in a letter to MSPs.
But it makes no mention of a six-month “education period” demanded by the Elections Watchdog to allow voters and officials to familiarise themselves with the change. Ministers say in a statement they will ensure “sufficient time” will be allowed for organisers to make the arrangements needed when proposing a date.
Any referendum on Scottish independence would also separately require a transfer of power from Westminster through a Section 30 order. This has so far been ruled out by Boris Johnson and Sturgeon is poised to make a fresh request in the coming weeks. The First Minister last week demanded that a second referendum “must be held” in 2020.
In the meantime, the SNP government at Holyrood is pressing ahead with legislation which would allow a second vote to take place.
The Scottish Government is already opposing Electoral Commission demands to carry out an assessment of the question Scots will be asked if this remains the same as 2014. This would be a 12-week process.
Russell has written to Holyrood’s Finance and Constitution Committee setting out a “timeline” for the referendum process.
“The first action in the process is that start of the application period for designated organisations,” his letter states. This starts 45 days before the first day of the referendum period, which will be set by legislation under section 1 of the Bill.
“If a four-week referendum period is set, then the application process must start about 10½ weeks before the date of the referendum.”
A five-week “administration” process would also be required, starting with the Notice of Referendum, but this could run alongside the campaign period.
Russell’s timeline makes no mention of the six-month period recommended by the Electoral Commission which would be needed for officials around the country to “understand, take advice on, receive guidance” on the legislation. It would also allow voters to be “informed about the issues at stake”.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We will ensure referendums are run to the highest standard and that those organising the referendum have sufficient time to make the arrangements set out in the framework.
“This would be taken into account when proposing the date of poll. We look forward to considering the committee’s report.”
Holyrood’s constitution committee is expected to back the general principles of the Referendums Bill in the stage 1 report to be published before the end of the month and a week later this will then be endorsed by MSPs.
But Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, hit out at plans for a fresh referendum.
“Mike Russell should start listening to people in Scotland, as barely a quarter support a divisive and unnecessary second independence referendum within the SNP’s timeframe,”
“That’s why the UK government will rightly reject the Section 30 request.
“If the SNP gets the chance to divide communities and put our economy at risk again it will need a lot longer than ten and a half weeks to provide voters with the truth about Scexit.”