Constitution Secretary Michael Russell appears to move goalposts on Indyref2 timing

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MIKE Russell has appeared to shift ground on the timing of a new independence vote by twice failing to repeat Nicola Sturgeon’s preferred timetable for Indyref2. 

The Constitution Secretary said another referendum should take place only after the Covid pandemic at an “appropriate” point sometime in the next parliament.

It contrasts with the First Minister previously insisting she wanted Indyref2 to be held “in the early part of the next parliament”, which runs until 2026.

Publishing an 11-point plan for Indyref2 last month, Mr Russell also used this formula.

He said: “It should be held after the pandemic, at a time to be decided by the democratically elected Scottish Parliament. The SNP believes that should be in the early part of the new term.”

He also told SNP activists recently it would be possible to hold the referendum before the end of this year.

His use of a far looser formula coincides with Ms Sturgeon saying her Government’s future response to Covid “must be driven much more by data than by dates”.

Her national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch has also warned global eradication of Covid is nigh impossible, and even eliminating it locally will be “a long journey”.

The Scottish Government is also unable to declare the pandemic over by itself in order to hold a referendum. 

The World Health Organisation would be the body to say the disease had moved to a “post-pandemic” phase.

The ability of Covid to generate more aggressive variants also poses an obvious risk to any referendum campaign attempted too soon in the next parliament, as a lurch into lockdown would rob it of momentum and raise questions about the Scottish Government’s competence.

Mr Russell’s comments came as he answered questions on the constitution at Holyrood, and twice omitted the “early part of the next parliament” mantra used until now.

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Tory MSP Brian Whittle asked him what assessment the Scottish Government had made of the “financial and personnel resource” required for Indyref2.

Mr Russell reminded MSPs that on 18 March last year he wrote to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove to confirm the Scottish Government had “paused work to prepare for an independence referendum in order to focus on its response to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

He said: “Aside from the publication of a draft bill for an independence referendum for introduction in the next parliamentary term, which will require minimal amounts of civil service resources and time, that continues to be the Scottish Government’s position and all other work is current paused.

“We’re very clear that an independence referendum should only take place once the Covid-19 pandemic is over.

“If there’s majority support for an independence referendum in the next parliamentary term, we will return to the issue when it’s appropriate to do so.”

Mr Whittle said the total cost of the 2014 referendum was more than £16m, and asked if Scots thought Indyref2 was a better use of public funds that economic recovery.

Mr Russell accused Mr Whittle of not listening to his answer, so said he would repeat it.

“An independence referendum should only take place once the Covid-19 pandemic is over,” he said.

Mr Whittle said later: “Mike Russell may be trying to backtrack but he and his senior SNP colleagues have repeatedly made it clear their intent for a destructive referendum as early as Christmas.

“This is clearly the last thing Scotland needs as we try to rebuild from the pandemic.”

The Scottish Government is due to publish its draft referendum bill by the end of March, when the parliament breaks for the Holyrood election.

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The SNP has said that if a pro-independence majority is elected, MSPs would demand Boris Johnson grant Holyrood referendum powers, and if he refused the parliament would pass a referendum Bill regardless and dare him to challenge it at the UK Supreme Court.

However Tory sources have suggested Mr Johnson could simply ignore the Bill or encourage a Unionist boycott that fatally undermined the result of any unilateral referendum.

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