The SNP manifesto for the election was unveiled in Perth yesterday and says a victory for the party in Scotland in next week’s vote would be a “triple lock” mandate for another referendum on the constitution.
Opposition parties said the manifesto pledge confirmed independence remains the SNP’s top priority.
The First Minister had previously indicated that she wanted the referendum by spring 2019, and before the UK’s departure from the European Union. This would allow Scotland to remain in the Brussels bloc while the rest of the UK departs. The manifesto contains no timetable on a second referendum, but does say it should happen when Brexit is complete.
Ms Sturgeon confirmed the timescale for a second referendum could pushed back beyond the spring 2019 deadline she had originally set out.
She said: “It is important that people have clarity about Brexit and what that means, and they then have clarity about the options. I’ve said autumn 2018 to spring 2019 for a reason: because that’s when Theresa May is saying the Brexit process will end, so I have taken her at her word.
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“If that changes, and I said this on the day I set out these plans, if that changes, then of course we’ll have to consider our timing in light of that.”
The Prime Minister has warned it could be several years after the UK formally withdraws in 2019 for the Brexit process to be completed.
Westminster has control over the constitution and Mrs May has so far ruled out at second vote, prompting a stand-off with the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Parliament recently voted in favour of a second referendum and the SNP manifesto yesterday warns that Brexit must not be imposed on Scotland “no matter how damaging it turns out to be”.
It adds: “Last year’s Holyrood election delivered the democratic mandate for an independence referendum. The recent vote of Scotland’s national Parliament has underlined that mandate.
“If the SNP wins a majority of seats in this election, that would complete a triple lock further reinforcing the democratic mandate which already exists.”
The First Minister said in a speech to supporters yesterday: “In these circumstances, any continued Tory attempts to block Scotland having a choice – when the time is right and the options are clear – would be democratically unsustainable.
“However, that will be a choice for the end of the Brexit process.”
Ms Sturgeon also said yesterday she was unveiling an anti-austerity manifesto, with a £118 billion plan to reverse Tory cuts to social security payments at the heart of the proposals.
The manifesto pledges an increase across the UK in the top rate of income tax – for those earning more than £150,000 – from 45p to 50p. The SNP has refused to do this in Scotland alone where it has these powers, amid fears high earners would move south of the Border.
Ms Sturgeon also unveiled a “three-point plan” in the manifesto to tackle poverty and inequality, and increase the incomes and the living standards of families across the UK.
She said: “We will support moves over the next Parliament, working with business, to increase the minimum wage to the level of the real living wage.
“That means a living wage, by the end of the next Parliament, that will be slightly more than £10 per hour.”
She also indicated that she will lift the 1 per cent cap on public sector pay hikes. It comes after she was confronted by nurse Claire Austin in a live TV debate last week about the impact of low pay on frontline NHS workers.
“The 1 per cent pay cap was designed to protect jobs at a time of spending cuts imposed by Westminster,” the First Minister said. “And at a time of rising inflation, it is increasingly unsustainable, so for next year and in future years, we will not assume a 1 per cent cap.”
Further pledges include a plan for additional NHS spending that would increase the health budget in Scotland by up to an extra £1bn, a call to abolish the two-child cap on benefits and the so-called rape clause, and backing for the triple lock on pensions.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said the SNP manifesto makes it clear that the party is “pushing” for another referendum.
“Nobody is fooled any more,” Ms Davidson said.
“Strip away the bluster and it’s written down in black and white – she wants to drag Scotland back to another referendum by as early as next autumn.
“That would cost jobs, risk our economy, and distract us all from the real job in hand – improving our schools and public services.
“This was a tired manifesto launch by a First Minister who has failed in this campaign to give people a single, positive reason for voting for her party.”
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said: “Nicola Sturgeon has once again confirmed that her number one priority in this election is her plan for another unwanted and divisive independence referendum.
“It is clearer than ever that the majority of Scots who don’t want another divisive independence referendum need to send Nicola Sturgeon a message that she should focus on the day job.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “The SNP must think we are stupid.
“They barely mentioned independence today but we know independence will be their top priority once the election is over.”