First minister says referendum bill will be introduced only if she believes it is the best or only way to protect Scotland’s interests
Nicola Sturgeon has shelved plans for a quick second referendum on Scottish independence after dire spending figures and a fall in public support for leaving the UK.
The first minister told Holyrood on Tuesday that her government only planned to issue a consultation on a draft referendum bill – a measure which falls short of tabling new legislation in this year’s programme for government.
Two months after telling reporters a referendum was “highly likely” within the next two years, she told MSPs that that bill would now only be introduced if she believed it was the best option for Scotland.
Her officials later said that consultation process could start at some time in the next year, with no target date in mind for its launch or its conclusion. Sturgeon’s official legislative timetable, the programme for government, described the referendum as an option and not as a goal.
Sturgeon had reacted furiously to the narrow majority among UK voters to leave the EU in the June referendum. On the day of the result, she described it as a “democratic outrage” for Scotland since it had voted heavily in favour of remaining in.
“The option of a second independence referendum must be on the table, and it is on the table,” Sturgeon said on 24 June. She said Holyrood had to have legislation ready to put before Scottish voters as soon as the UK government triggered the Article 50 process to leave the EU.
“We must act now to protect that position,” she stressed, announcing that her officials were now preparing that legislation.
She had expected that Article 50 would be triggered within three months, and said that would give Scotland two years to stage that vote. However, in Westminster there have been no immediate moves to trigger Article 50, and so Sturgeon no longer has any clear timescale for a second referendum.
As she unveiled 14 bills on domestic policy, she told MSPs on Tuesday: “We will consult on a draft referendum bill so that it is ready for immediate introduction if we conclude that independence is the best or only way to protect Scotland’s interests.”
Despite Labour’s jeers at her apparent U-turn in Holyrood on Tuesday, Sturgeon has been slowly and carefully lowering the temperature on a second referendum, gradually stressing the case for increasing Scotland’s influence over the final Brexit deal.
That was signalled first with her appointment of the veteran former education secretary, Mike Russell, one of Holyrood’s most experienced and combative figures, to become her Brexit minister last month and lead negotiations with the UK government.
She announced last Friday she wanted Scottish National party members to consult two million Scottish voters on their attitudes to independence, to understand why those who voted no had rejected leaving the UK. That morning, a YouGov poll for the Times had found only 40% of voters still backed independence, including don’t knows, while only 37% backed holding a second vote before the UK left the EU. Excluding don’t knows, it found that opposition to independence was at 54% and support at 46% – the same figure as in the 2014 referendum.
Scotland’s official public spending data last month also showed a £15bn budget deficit last year, partly due to the collapse in oil revenues. That was equivalent to 21% of overall government spending in Scotland or 9.5% of GDP, a budget deficit larger than that of Greece.
In a further attempt to stimulate Scotland’s struggling economy, which has grown far slower than the UK average since the 2014 referendum, Sturgeon unveiled plans for a £500m investment and loans guarantee system for small- and medium-sized firms. There would be a new social security bill to scrap the bedroom tax, introduce new “best start” grants for low income parents, and a new child poverty bill, which would introduce the UK’s first statutory income targets on child poverty.
Her government would press on with the merger of the British Transport police in Scotland with Police Scotland – a measure the BTP has itself criticised – along with a new statutory offence of domestic abuse to strengthen action against abusers.
She confirmed that the SNP would cut air passenger duty at Scottish airports by 50% from April 2018 to stimulate spending, a plan lambasted by Labour and the Scottish Greens as it would damage efforts to tackle climate change.
Claiming that her government’s philosophy was in stark contrast to that of a right-wing Tory government in Westminster, Sturgeon said: “This means a real battle of ideas. A sense of solidarity versus the ideology of the small state.”
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said Sturgeon should drop the referendum option entirely given the difficulties facing Scotland’s struggling economy. “The single biggest economic lever that the SNP could pull right now to help the country grow would be to remove the threat of a second referendum,” she said.
Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, said the SNP had had nearly a decade in power at Holyrood and had unprecedented new tax powers, yet was still tinkering around the edges of the parliament’s powers.
She said rail investment projects were months late, bus services still poor, educational disadvantage remained entrenched, and hospital wards being axed that Scottish ministers had pledged to protect. With Sturgeon now elected as first minister until 2021, Dugdale added: “Let this be five years where focusing on jobs, public services and our economy rank as highly as the SNP’s fight for independence.”