A second independence referendum could be held as early as next year, according to Scotland’s Constitution Secretary.
Mike Russell said a shorter campaign than during the 2014 poll would mean votes being cast in the latter part of 2021.
It comes after recent polls put the SNP well in front ahead of next year’s Holyrood election, and support for independence reaching as high as 48%.
In its Programme for Government published last month, the Scottish Government announced plans to publish a draft Bill setting out the question to be asked and the terms and timescale of another referendum.
But the Scottish Conservatives have said the SNP should instead focus on the country’s recovery from coronavirus.
Mr Russell told BBC Scotland’s The Nine: “If the Scottish people endorse (the draft Bill at the election) and wish it to happen, then it must happen, and we’re not going to do anything other than assume that it will happen in those circumstances – if the Scottish people speak then they have to be heard and there will have to be a referendum.
“That could take place, I’m sure, before the end of next year.”
Mr Russell said a second referendum would have a far shorter timescale than in 2014, when several years passed between the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement allowing the vote and the ballot itself.
He said: “I think, inevitably, it will be shorter this time.
“There is the opportunity to have it in a reasonable period from next year’s election, which is due in May, and I think we would want to get on with it.”
Mr Russell said there needs to be “clarity” around Scottish independence, after what he said had been an uncertain four years as a result of Brexit.
The main issue, he said, is who would be trusted by the Scottish people to rebuild after the coronavirus pandemic.
This crisis is far from over. The immediate priority of people across Scotland is fighting this pandemic and saving jobs.
— Scottish Conservatives (@ScotTories) October 22, 2020
But Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross told the Scottish Government to instead focus on that recovery.
He said: “This crisis is far from over. Around 100,000 jobs are at risk and businesses are closing right now, some of them for good.
“The immediate priority of people across Scotland is fighting this pandemic and saving jobs.
“It’s staggering that they (the SNP) would even contemplate dragging the country through that at the moment. In less than 14 months’ time, they would have Scotland divided and distracted from the huge challenges we’re facing.
“When they should be focused on Scottish jobs, the SNP Government are in danger of losing the plot. SNP ministers need to leave the Holyrood bubble and get out in the real world where jobs and businesses are under threat.”