Ukraine war will not affect independence poll, says Sturgeon

The war in Ukraine will not affect the timing of a second independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon has said, as she refused to rule out court action after Scotland’s information commissioner ordered her government to publish its legal advice on holding a second poll.

The Scottish National party leader and first minister also challenged the UK government to take a four nations approach to mitigating the cost of living crisis, just as happened during the pandemic.

Amid growing fears that the Russia-Ukraine conflict will continue into next year, Sturgeon said: “I’ve not changed my position on the timescale we won the mandate for in the election last year.”

Sturgeon was speaking on board the SNP’s canary yellow campaign bus after knocking on doors around Glasgow with candidates for this Thursday’s council elections. The party’s local manifesto includes a reiteration of its 2021 Holyrood election commitment to hold a second independence referendum by the end of 2023.

There has been increasing speculation that the ongoing war in Europe could impact this timetable, and that the party’s stance on a Trident-free independent Scotland is out of step with public mood at a time of international conflict.

Sturgeon acknowledged that “everybody in the European Union is fundamentally rethinking defence and security” but insists this does not amount to the need for a more flexible policy around nuclear weapons post-independence.

“My party is very strongly in principle and for practical reasons against nuclear weapons, and that’s not going to change. We’ve got to remember that the vast majority of countries in the world don’t have nuclear weapons.”

The question of Nato membership has divided nationalist opinion – the SNP changed policy in 2012 to remaining within the alliance if Scotland becomes independent, prompting the resignation of 3 MSPs. Sturgeon said her party has to be “much more engaged” in the question of what an independent Scotland would bring to Nato. “What would be the specialisms and the expertise that we could put on the table, to be a much much more constructive partner in that security alliance?”

Last week, Scotland’s Information Commissioner ordered Sturgeon’s government to publish its legal advice on whether it would have the requisite powers to hold a second referendum without Westminster’s consent – which Boris Johnson has consistently refused – following a lengthy FOI battle with the Scotsman. Are ministers planning to publish that information or challenge the ruling in court?

“The Commissioner’s made his ruling, there’s now a June 10 deadline, any government is going to carefully consider all aspects of that and I’m not going to pre-empt that consideration,” said Sturgeon.

“The question is not whether the Scottish government will comply with the law. We will. The question is whether political opponents and actually democrats are willing to argue their case democratically and allow the people to decide”.

The SNP, the largest party of local government and now in power at Holyrood for 15 years, is facing serious challenges to its reputation for competence, including delays and mismanagement of vital ferry services and soaring NHS waiting times while there has been outcry at funding cuts handed down to local services following the latest Scottish budget.

But latest polling suggests that the party will maintain its dominance, although the latest Panelbase tracker for the Sunday Times has support for the party down six points since last November.

Scottish Labour is expected to push the Conservatives into third place, as pro-union voters react to Partygate. But with the constitution continuing to steer voter choice, elections expert Sir John Curtice has pointed out that every poll in Scotland is a “quasi-referendum”.

“The anger about Partygate, feeding into and being fed by the anger and genuine distress people are feeling about the cost of living is palpable,” said Sturgeon.

She was dismissive of the latest comments by Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross that Johnson was “fit for office”, despite previously calling for the prime minister to resign.

“He got, rightly, some credit for doing that – not easy within his own party – but then to make the U-turn he’s made and now argue against all evidence to the contrary that Boris Johnson is actually fit to be prime minister, makes him look unprincipled, inconsistent, lacking resolve and a bit silly.”

At her party’s council manifesto launch, Sturgeon promised a “pandemic-level” response to the cost of living crisis, highlighting the doubling of the new weekly child payment for low income families, the council tax reduction scheme and efforts to reduce fuel poverty.

Now she is calling for a concerted four-nations effort, as happened throughout the Covid crisis, a point she says she raised last week with Michael Gove.

“Inevitably that has to involve much more action on the part of the UK government because most of the resources and levers do lie there … I suggested we haven’t proper four nations discussion with actual proposals on the table from all four nations with the Treasury there, properly engaged.”

Scotland elects councillors by proportional representation, making coalitions and minority administrations the norm, but Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, has ruled out deals with other parties.

“What that says to me,” she said, “is that Anas Sarwar is a politician deep in opposition mindset, that he is not somebody who is yet anywhere close to thinking about what it means to be in power and take responsibility”.

“In an STV election, if you have that position then you’re effectively freezing yourself in opposition.”

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