The Scottish Government could “accelerate” legislation for a second independence referendum if circumstances change, Brexit Secretary Mike Russell has said.
He told MSPs at Holyrood that if the UK quits the European Union without a deal there would be “an even greater urgency to give Scotland a choice of a different future”.
With hardliners such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove now vying to become the next PM, the Scottish Constitutional Relations Secretary warned they were “heading with pleasure to the cliff-edge” of a no-deal Brexit.
While the Scottish Government’s new bill, laying the framework for future referendums, is due to pass through Holyrood by the end of 2019, Mr Russell said this could be fast-tracked if needed.
Speaking to MSPs after the Referendums (Scotland) Bill was published, he said: “It is the intention of the Government to offer the people of Scotland a choice on independence later in the term of this Parliament.
“Of course, should circumstances change, we would have the option of seeking Parliament’s agreement to proceed at an accelerated timetable.”
With several prominent pro-Brexit Conservatives now hoping to succeed Theresa May, Mr Russell said: “The Tories are heading for a no-deal Brexit – and some positively welcome that disastrous direction of travel.”
He added: “A Boris Johnson premiership is no longer a bad joke, it is a frightening possibility.
“Substitute Raab or Leadsom or Gove or Hancock or any of the others for Johnston and the situation is no better.
“Most are heading with pleasure to the cliff-edge. But Scotland must not be forced against our will to go with them.”
He insisted the SNP 2016 election manifesto – which stated Holyrood should have the right to hold another vote on independence if there was a “material change of circumstances” from 2014 – gave the Scottish Government a mandate for a second referendum
“That is what people voted for when they voted the SNP into government,” Mr Russell said.
“And if a new Tory prime minister attempts a no-deal Brexit, whilst we will do everything possible to stop it, and everything we can to mitigate it, it will yet be further proof that the conditions set out in our manifesto in April 2016 have been met full and there will be an even greater urgency to give Scotland a choice of a different future.”
Scottish Conservative constitution spokesman Adam Tomkins claimed: “In reality, this is Nicola Sturgeon laying the ground for a ‘wildcat’ second referendum on independence.”
He added: “Under this bill, SNP ministers would have the power to set any referendum question, at any time, on any matter of their choosing. It’s a power grab on an industrial scale.”
Mr Tomkins warned “even the powers of the Electoral Commission to scrutinise proposed referendum questions will be diminished in comparison with the position in UK law” and asked why “should ministers and not Parliament determine these matters”.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard claimed the Scottish Government was only “seeking to advance the cause of the break-up of the United Kingdom” by publishing the bill.
— Michael Russell (@Feorlean) May 29, 2019
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie claimed SNP ministers had “learnt nothing from the chaos of Brexit”.
“Independence will mount chaos on top of the Brexit chaos,” he said.
Patrick Harvie, of the pro-independence Scottish Greens, welcomed the bill and said he would be prepared to work with other parties.
“We respect the fact that some people don’t want to see this debate even take place,” he said.
“But those who oppose independence should at least have the willingness to come forward with positive alternatives.
“The status quo is broken and we should not ask Scotland to face the threat of a chaotic Brexit and a hard-right Prime Minister without the power to make our own choices about our own future.”