Nicola Sturgeon is ready to build a second independence referendum on a battle for Scotland’s global trade links, according to her predecessor.
Alex Salmond said it will be known within weeks whether a second vote is to take place as pro-Union parties today stage a last ditch attempt to avoid another referendum on leaving the UK.
The former First Minister said a vote could be held in late 2018 – just four years after the last referendum which saw Scots vote by 55 per cent to 45 per cent in favour of staying in the UK.
But Conservative leader Ruth Davidson will warn in a flagship speech today that the SNP’s “obsession” with a second referendum will see the country’s flagging education system continue its global slump, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats also demanding an end to constitutional upheaval.
The prospect of a so-called “indyref2” has intensified after Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled plans for a hard Brexit which would leave the UK outside the lucrative EU single market. Mr Salmond said yesterday: “The key battleground in terms of economics of any future independence referendum is not going to be like last time the currency, but is going to be trade and access to trade and access to markets, because that is what the UK government is jeopardising and that is what an independent Scotland could secure.”
He added: “The key argument I see coming in this referendum, if that’s what happens, in terms of economics is going to be what secures Scotland’s trade, our access to markets.
“I think independence has a winning argument on that framework and I expect to see it expertly deployed by Nicola Sturgeon.”
As well as the free trade with other European countries as part of the single market, EU membership also means Scotland enjoys the benefits of tariff-free trade deals with markets around the world which the Brussels bloc has secured.
Ms Sturgeon has published proposals for a “differentiated” deal for Scotland which she said would allow it to remain the single market, but this appears increasingly unlikely.
Mr Salmond added: “The key matter, as was enunciated in the compromise proposal, in terms of protecting the Scottish economy, saving Scottish jobs and saving Scottish investment is for continued, uninterrupted membership of the European Economic Area.
“That could be secured by membership of the European Union, but there are other ways to secure it as well. So the SNP’s position will be for Scotland as an independent member of the European Union, but the key negotiating priority, as Nicola Sturgeon has outlined in her proposal to the UK government is to stay within that European Economic Area.”
A BMG poll last week suggested 49 per cent support among Scots for independence excluding “don’t knows”, although most polls suggest a stronger lead for No and falling support for a second referendum.
Mr Salmond said: “I’d be very confident that the progress we’re seeing in support for independence can continue if the campaign is pitched in the right way”.
But Ms Davidson will today warn in a keynote speech in London that a second referendum will undermine flagship education reforms as Scottish schools fall down international league tables.
The Tory leader will say: “If the First Minister now says she wants an ‘absolute focus’ on education, why is she considering another referendum campaign which will inevitably distract her from that goal?
“How can education be ‘the priority” for her, if she plunges us back into another all-consuming fight over Scotland’s place in the UK?
“If she spends the next two years fighting over a second referendum, how will her government have the time to deliver the changes in education she says she wants?”
“The First Minister now faces a choice,” Ms Davidson will warn. “Either to focus on her own priority, and ensure our schools are turned around – or to push ahead with a second referendum which will only distract her from that goal.
“She says she wants a second referendum. I say, Scotland’s children won’t get a second chance. Either she focuses on her own-stated priority of education. Or she betrays that pledge in favour of the SNP’s constitutional obsession. She simply cannot have it both ways.
“Simply put, I do not think the majority of people in Scotland will tolerate the SNP setting all things aside over the coming two years to re-fight a campaign on independence.”
Labour’s James Kelly hit out at the absence of any answer on the question of which currency an independent Scotland would use after the proposal for keeping the pound in a currency union with the UK was rejected by the UK government in 2014. This proposal seems even more unlikely after Brexit, if Scotland is able to gain EU membership as an independent state.
“Alex Salmond’s approach on currency is to ignore and hope nobody notices – it won’t wash,” Mr Kelly said.
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie claimed the SNP is now “paralysed” by the independence issue.
He said: “The SNP is paralysed by the independence issue. They are so focused on breaking up Britain that they have completely failed to deal with the challenges in our economy, education and health service. A vote in autumn 2018 will only lead to a further 18 months of paralysis as they continue to pursue their independence agenda.”