Scottish opposition leaders will refuse to engage with Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to run the next general election as a de facto independence referendum, after the first minster said it was the only lawful way for Scots to express their will.
Following Wednesday’s unanimous supreme court ruling that the Scottish government cannot hold a second referendum without Westminster’s approval – which four consecutive prime ministers have refused to give – Sturgeon told a news conference: “We must and we will find another democratic, lawful and constitutional means by which the Scottish people can express their will. In my view, that can only be an election.”
The Scottish National party leader later addressed a pro-independence rally outside the Holyrood parliament, telling the crowd that the court judgment “clarified that the UK is not a voluntary partnership of nations”.
But Sturgeon faced immediate challenges to her election plan, as opposition voices across the political spectrum rejected it on Thursday morning, while voices within the pro-independence movement questioned how it might work in practice.
Asked how Labour would respond if it won the next general election at Westminster but the SNP gained more than 50% of votes in Scotland, the Scottish Labour deputy leader, Jackie Baillie, told BBC Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme: “I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals because the reality is that I don’t think there’s that support for independence in the country. Only four out of the last 29 polls have suggested a majority in favour of a referendum.”
Pointing to the recent rise in support for her party in Scotland, which has pushed the Scottish Conservatives into third place behind the SNP, Baillie added: “People across Scotland are realising if they want change they will vote for a Labour government who will deliver for them in a cost of living crisis, put the NHS back on the path to recovery and focus on jobs and the economy in the way the SNP haven’t because their single obsession is independence.”
The Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, told the same programme: “It’s not up to politicians to dictate what the public should be interested in at a general election – it’s up to every party to come up with a range of policies on local and national issues … What we’ve heard from Nicola Sturgeon is she doesn’t want to go on her domestic record after 15 years of failure.”
On Thursday morning, the Scottish Liberal Democrats likewise dismissed the idea of a single-issue election. Their leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton, challenged Sturgeon to spend the £20m budgeted for an independence referendum on supporting those with long Covid.
Cole-Hamilton said: “The Scottish government have suddenly found themselves with £20m spare after their embarrassing supreme court defeat. That money should be used to deliver the comprehensive treatment and support that people with long Covid so desperately need.”
While Sturgeon said she would ask the SNP’s national executive to convene a special party conference in the new year to discuss detail of the de facto referendum plan, disagreements are already emerging among other pro-independence parties.
Ross Greer for the Scottish Greens told the BBC that his party would be “fielding a full slate of candidates and on the case that a vote for the Greens is a vote for independence”.
But Alex Salmond’s Alba party suggested only one pro-independence candidate should stand in each seat, in order to funnel all independence support to one person.