The Scottish National party on Saturday announced plans to try to legislate for a second independence referendum even if the UK government continues to refuse to approve such a vote.
Michael Russell, Scotland’s constitution secretary and SNP president, said a bill to hold a plebiscite on ending the three-century union with England would be introduced to the Scottish parliament if elections scheduled for May resulted in a pro-independence majority in the 129-member chamber.
The plans follow growing pressure on SNP leaders from members for a “Plan B” route to a referendum. Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, has said he will not approve another independence vote and argued in an interview this month that Westminster should not allow one until the 2050s.
Mr Russell said in a statement that the Scottish parliament could pass a bill preparing for an independence vote even without UK approval, challenging Westminster to “take legal action to dispute the legal basis of the referendum and seek to block the will of the Scottish people in the courts”.
The UK government approved the holding of Scotland’s 2014 referendum, in which voters backed the union by 55-45 per cent, and insists an independence vote held without such authorisation would be illegal.
Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, accused the SNP government of recklessly neglecting the coronavirus pandemic to put “time, energy and resources are going into pursuing an illegal referendum”.
The Scottish government and some legal experts have in the past argued that Edinburgh can legally unilaterally hold an advisory independence referendum under current devolution law. In a speech last year, Ms Sturgeon said she did not rule out testing the legality of such a vote.
However, the plans announced by Mr Russell on Saturday mark a concession by the SNP leadership, which had previously resisted pressure to set out any “Plan B” thinking ahead of the May elections.
A senior party member familiar with Ms Sturgeon’s views told the Financial Times this month there was “absolutely no point in telling Boris Johnson the thinking that may go on” about tactics for after May.
The new plan may go some way to ease pressure on the leadership ahead of a virtual SNP National Assembly on Sunday that will discuss “alternative routes” to an independence referendum.
Joanna Cherry, an SNP member of the UK parliament who has been critical of Ms Sturgeon, said the party should now “unite around the recognition that we need a Plan B”, but that she had “many questions” about the new plan that she would raise at the assembly.
Ms Cherry has previously cautioned against accepting that any move to independence must be carried out within UK devolution legislation.
Some other independence supporters were more critical. Wings Over Scotland, a blog popular among more impatient SNP members, called the proposal “ZZZ-grade donkey fodder”.
The new SNP plan is likely to focus attention on an innovative legal effort launched by independence activist Martin Keatings to get the court of session in Edinburgh to declare that Scotland can legally hold a referendum on leaving the UK without Westminster’s consent.
The court heard arguments in the case on Thursday and Friday with Mr Keating’s call opposed by both the UK government and the Scottish government’s top law officer, who said judges should not be asked to determine “hypothetical or academic matters that would have no practical effect”.