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SNP will propose new independence vote next year, former deputy leader says

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Exclusive: Jim Sillars, who was Alex Salmond’s number two, says party members will insist another referendum is ‘first line’ of 2016 Holyrood manifesto

By

The Telegraph

The SNP will propose another independence referendum in its Scottish election manifesto, the former deputy leader has said amid fears over the party’s influence on Ed Miliband after the election.

Jim Sillars told The Telegraph party members will demand a promise to hold another vote on independence is the “first line” of the SNP’s 2016 Holyrood manifesto.

He said any other move would be “astonishing” and likely trigger a backlash from the tens of thousands of new members who joined after Scots voted to stay in the Union last September.

Reacting to the comments, Nicola Sturgeon indicated the SNP could pledge a second referendum in principle in a future manifesto but said it would not necessarily trigger an immediate vote.

The SNP leader also repeatedly failed to rule out putting a pledge in next year’s manifesto after being grilled on Mr Sillars’s comments during First Minister’s Questions.

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It will increase suspicion that the SNP will use its influence in Westminster after the election to break up the UK and add credence to Tory warnings over the impact of an Labour-SNP pact.

It comes as an Ipsos MORI poll indicated the SNP will win every seat in Scotland with more than half the country on course to back the Nationalists on May 7.

Speaking to this newspaper, Mr Sillars became the first major SNP figure in the campaign to declare the party will propose a rerun of the independence vote next year.

“I would anticipate that a lot of people will be looking to next year’s election, 2016 for the Scottish Parliament, to have a commitment for a mandate to hold a referendum when it suits us,” Mr Sillars said.

“That is the key thing, no timetable attached. But a commitment in principle? No question, I think that is bound to be the case.”

He added: “I can’t see a membership of 100,000 which came in on the independence issue not demanding that in the manifesto. It would be astonishing if you joined the SNP because you desire independence as soon as you can possibly get it and not expect it to be in the manifesto.”

Asked if there was any doubt the SNP would promise another independence vote next year, he replied: “Oh no. I can’t see how it can be avoided, frankly.”

While making it clear he did not speak for the leadership, Mr Sillars is one of the party’s best known figures and continues to hold considerable clout with members. He is often described as Alex Salmond’s former mentor and served under him as deputy leader of the party in the early 1990s.

Mr Sillars’s comments back up Labour and Tory claims that the SNP is secretly planning another independence vote despite promising last year’s referendum was a “once in a generation” decision.

Ms Sturgeon has largely stopped discussing independence publicly and portrayed the SNP as a party that can be trusted governing in the UK-wide interest, offering England a “hand of friendship”.

But a senior SNP source told The Telegraph how the party could justify a second referendum after the election by playing on the idea of a betrayal on promises by Westminster.

“If we can achieve the kind of policy objectives we want to see, particularly around the anti-austerity and the devolution of powers, then that is fantastic. If they backslide then the dynamics change,” the SNP source said.

“If they don’t deliver what they promised last year, if they don’t deliver the maximum devolution the Scottish people expect, then the Scottish people themselves might begin to say ‘hold on a minute, do we want another referendum’?”

When Mr Sillars was asked if he thought the “overriding drive” of Ms Sturgeon’s leadership remained winning independence, he replied: “The desire for Scottish independence does not go away. It remains central to the whole political personality of the SNP and its leadership.”

Scotland voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK last year in a referendum the SNP called “once in a generation”

Ms Sturgeon was challenged by Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, during First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood about whether she agreed with Mr Sillars.

“I’ve got the greatest respect for Jim Sillars but the clue is in the title: former deputy leader of the SNP,” Ms Sturgeon said.

However the SNP leader repeatedly refused to rule out putting a second referendum in next year’s manifesto for Scottish elections, saying it was up to the electorate.

Ms Sturgeon also indicated the SNP could pledge support in principle for another independence vote but the timing of a referendum would be up to the voters.

She said: “If the SNP ever does propose in a manifesto a second referendum that, in and of itself, does not bring about a referendum.

“People in Scotland first have to vote for that manifesto and give the SNP sufficient numbers in this parliament to get the legislation through. That’s democracy.”

Ms Sturgeon claimed the Scottish people could reject staging a second vote “for a generation, a lifetime, 10 lifetimes” if they wanted.

The First Minister repeated that circumstances would have to change for another referendum to be staged, and a proposal for a vote would have to be included in the manifesto of a party that won a majority of seats at a Holyrood election.

Ms Sturgeon claimed Labour was the only party talking about a second referendum but Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, pointed to a series of statements by SNP candidates saying they would use their election to Westminster to push for another vote.

An SNP spokesperson said: “As Nicola Sturgeon has said, this election is about making Scotland stronger at Westminster with a team of SNP MPs. It is emphatically not about independence, and we are not planning for another referendum – regardless of how many seats we win next Thursday.

“Jim is entitled to his personal opinion but as the First Minister has said, something substantive would have to change before another referendum could be proposed – such as Scotland getting dragged out of Europe against our will. People would then need to vote for a party offering a referendum in a Scottish Parliament election, and would then need to vote for independence – the people of Scotland are in charge at every stage.”

KEY JIM SILLARS QUOTES

On a 2016 manifesto promise for independence vote
“I would anticipate that a lot of people will be looking to next year’s election, 2016 for the Scottish Parliament, to have a commitment for a mandate to hold a referendum when it suits us. That is the key thing, no timetable attached. But a commitment in principle? No question, I think that is bound to be the case.”

On membership’s view on manifesto
“I can’t see a membership of 100,000 which came in on the independence issue not demanding that in the manifesto. It would be astonishing if you joined the SNP because you desire independence as soon as you can possibly get it and not expect it to be in the manifesto.”

On whether there is any “doubt” referendum pledge will be in 2016 manifesto
“Oh no. I can’t see how it can be avoided, frankly. All these people who joined the SNP did so out of the desire for independence.”

On whether “overriding drive” of Ms Sturgeon’s leadership is independence
“The desire for Scottish independence does not go away. It remains central to the whole political personality of the SNP and its leadership.”