Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May were embroiled in a furious row last night after the First Minister unveiled legislation for a second independence referendum before the UK leaves the EU.
The two leaders clashed over Ms Sturgeon’s right to hold another poll, which could see a date named as early as next spring and a vote held in the first months of 2018. The draft legislation proposed a referendum along the same lines as 2014 with 16 and 17-year-olds given the vote along with EU nationals and an identical question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
In her foreword to her “Consultation on a Draft Referendum Bill”, the SNP leader said June’s Brexit vote had given the Scottish Government a “clear mandate” to re-run the 2014 poll.
In the document she said there had been a “significant and material change” in circumstances since the vote against independence with Scotland being taken out of the EU “against our will”.
With Westminster retaining the ultimate power over referendums, the document anticipated that the UK Parliament would temporarily transfer the control over the vote to Holyrood as it did in 2014 with a section 30 order.
The document said it was “expected that a section 30 order would be sought and agreed”.
The Prime Minister does not believe that there is a mandate for one [a second referendum]No. 10 spokesperson
But almost as soon as the document was published the Prime Minister’s spokesman disputed Ms Sturgeon’s claim that she had the right to hold a second vote.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister and the Government does not believe that there is a mandate for one.
“There was one only two years ago. There was an extremely high turnout and there was a resounding result in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK.”
He added that “both sides agreed to abide by that referendum”.
Despite the strong dismissal of Ms Sturgeon’s mandate claim Downing Street did, however, appear to leave the door ajar for a section 30 order.
When asked if UK ministers would reject a call for a second referendum from the Scottish Government, the spokesman declined to give a straight answer saying: “There has not been a call.”
Ms Sturgeon has pledged to explore other options to maintain Scotland’s relationship with the EU while remaining in the UK, but she believes she must have the ability to call indyref2 if she judges that only independence can protect Scotland’s interests.
Mrs May will trigger Article 50 – the mechanism for EU withdrawal – by the end of March, an event that will set in motion a two year negotiation process.
The prospect of Ms Sturgeon setting a date shortly after Article 50 is triggered was raised when her depute leader Angus Robertson yesterday told the BBC that it would be “pretty clear, pretty soon” just how damaging the UK’s approach to Europe would be.
The Scottish Constitution Secretary Derek Mackay claimed it was “inconceivable” that the Conservative government would block a referendum and suggested it would take between six and nine months to get legislation through parliament.
Assuming a date was announced next spring and allowing for the 16 week campaigning period, indyref2 could take place in early 2018.
The 12-week consultation proposes that the Electoral Commission polices the poll, which would see a return of the Better Together and Yes Scotland-style lead bodies on either side.
Although the document suggested the same question as 2014, it did not rule out the form of words being changed.
“At this stage it is expected that the same question would be used again,” it said. “But if as a result of consultation the Scottish Government is minded to propose a variation on that question it would submit the proposal to the Electoral Commission for independent testing.”
As in 2014, the referendum would again not be subject to any minimum turnout requirement, and would be decided by a simple majority of voters.
And any individual or organisation wanting to spend more than £10,000 on campaigning has to register with the Electoral Commission as a “permitted participant”.
A 16-week “referendum period” would be imposed in the lead-up to the vote. During this period rules on campaign conduct and spending would apply. The rules state that there should be no public funding for campaign organisations.
The SNP’s minority administration would need the support of the independence-supporting Greens to get the legislation through parliament.
Yesterday Green co-leader Patrick Harvie said the UK Government’s inability to acknowledge Scotland’s Remain vote and failure to show flexibility when it came to Scotland shaping its own relationship with Europe meant: that “independence is quickly becoming the most realistic option for Scotland”.