Jim Murphy wanted Labour indyref in 2008 but was blocked by Gordon Brown

Former Scottish secretary Jim Murphy wanted an independence referendum to be called in 2008, but the idea was vetoed by then prime minister Gordon Brown, it has been revealed.

Jim Murphy says Gordon Brown vetoed the idea for a 2008 referendum. Photograph: Neil Hanna

In the wake of the SNP Holyrood victory in 2007, Murphy wanted to “call the Nationalists’ bluff” and the issue was raised in Cabinet. However, Brown refused to back a referendum because of the financial crash.

The revelation comes in a new three-part BBC documentary, Yes/No: Inside The Indyref, in which former chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling says: “Inevitably, when the Nationalists formed a minority government in 2007 there was talk of a referendum because that’s what they were for. There was a discussion in Cabinet as to whether or not it might be better for the then Labour government to call that referendum.”

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Murphy adds: “These things were coming our way, and in politics when there’s a fast-moving vehicle coming towards you, you can’t just stand still. It will hit you … we should call the Nationalists’ bluff, seize the initiative, call an independence referendum and win positively.”

Murphy was made Scottish secretary in 2008 – the same year the then leader of Scottish Labour Wendy Alexander was criticised for demanding former first minister Alex Salmond “bring it on” in the hope of an early referendum.

Alexander was concerned the SNP might call a vote only when it was more established as a party of government. The documentary shows Murphy was making the same argument in Cabinet.

However, Brown still stands by his decision to say no. He says: “I think it was difficult to have a referendum at a time when we had a global financial crisis, and we had that crisis in 2008, 2009, 2010, and I think you must not assume that because you had an SNP administration you will inevitably have massive support for independence and, in my view, that was not inevitable.”

The first part of the BBC documentary, to be broadcast on Tuesday night, details the political landscape from 2007 to 2012, focusing on the SNP’s shift from opposition party to Scottish Government and the battle over when a referendum would be held and the question to be asked.

Major players from both sides including Salmond, Brown, Nicola Sturgeon, George Osborne and Nick Clegg give the inside track on their campaigns.

While First Minister Nicola Sturgeon talks about the excitement of winning in 2007 and then gaining an outright majority in 2011, Murphy admits Labour “got absolutely battered in that election – and much else flowed from it”.

The documentary also underlines that then prime minister David Cameron did not believe Salmond wanted a referendum because the opinion polls showed most Scots did not want independence.

Sturgeon says: “Westminster politicians have never understood us, they’ve never got it. They’ve never really been able to come to terms with the fact that there’s this thing we believe in and we’ve thought about it, and we believe in it because we think it’s right for the country and we’re prepared to take risks occasionally in pursuit of it.”

The programme also reveals Alistair Darling was forced into spearheading the No campaign because no-one else would do it.

Brown tells of how he met with Osborne and Cameron to discuss tactics – despite having “no real desire to return to frontline politics”.

Yes/No: Inside The Indyref airs on BBC Scotland at 10pm on Tuesday.