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Former Labour First Minister warns early referendum would split country ‘like Brexit’ amid support for independence comments

Former First Minister Henry McLeish. Town Conference - handout © Sandy young Photography 07970 268944 Scotland's Towns Conference, Aberdeen Music Hall. E: W: **Editorial use only**no photo sales**no marketing** credit should read**

Former First Minister Henry McLeish has warned it is “high noon” for the future of the UK but warned against holding another referendum before the end of the decade.

The former Fife Labour MP appeared to back independence during a debate with other politicians on a podcast hosted by Brian Taylor.

On the show, which is produced by The Herald, Mr McLeish said he would support independence should the union “fail to reform”.

Speaking with this paper, Mr McLeish said the time was not right for an early referendum on independence and if one was held soon it would be even more divisive than the Brexit vote.

He said: “If we had an early vote and the country voted to remain in the UK, then Boris Johnson would use it as a reason not to reform the country or the union for the better. Equally, if the people decided to vote for independence, then it would have all the hallmarks of the Brexit vote and divide the country probably forever.”

Need for ‘better debate’

Mr McLeish added he would want to see a “deeper, wider” debate on the future of Scotland and the four-nations of the union, but any vote should not be held for at least another 5-10 years.

He added: “Despite the impact of the SNP over the last 14 years, Scotland remains bitterly divided on its political and constitutional future.

“We need to work harder on how to build consensus. It does not have to be independence, but it cannot be the status quo.

“The Union is not listening or moving and it seems Boris Johnson is attempting to dismantle devolution settlement.

“He has no idea of four nation governance and treats Scotland with disrespect.

“So far the debate seems to be between unionism vs nationalism and that’s not where we should be.

“If the SNP did not exist, the case for reforming the union would still be there. This should not just be about Nicola Sturgeon against Boris Johnson.

“The debate should be about the future of Scotland. Since devolution was introduced we modernised, we improved legislation and moved forward.

“My worry now is we have stalled.

“It’s high noon for the union. The question on independence will need settled, but my  heartfelt wish is for bigger, better, deeper debate, in the interest of democracy.”

‘Sinking ship’

A Scottish Conservative party spokesman said: “This former Labour leader has been talking up separation for years.

“It’s just another senior Labour figure cosying up to the nationalists.”

Labour peer Lord George Foulkes added: “I have heard of rats leaving a sinking ship, but I have never heard of rats joining a sinking ship.”

SNP ‘welcomes’ news

SNP Depute Leader Keith Brown MSP said: “More and more people in Scotland support an independent Scotland – so it’s welcome that Henry McLeish, one of the fathers of devolution, supports decisions about Scotland being taken by those who live here.

“Independence is normal, and Scotland only has to look to the successes of other small independent European nations like Ireland to consider the immense possibilities that lie ahead.

SNP MSP Keith Brown

“The alternative is to let Scotland suffer under Westminster control – yoked to a Tory government which pushed through a Brexit that Scotland didn’t vote for, plans a brazen grab on Holyrood’s powers, and threatens to cruelly cut the lifeline boost to Universal Credit that ordinary people rely on.

“A former Labour First Minister announces that he is now open to independence, but Anas Sarwar fails to even recognise the cast-iron mandate delivered by the people of Scotland to hold a referendum.

“It is very telling that Henry McLeish – one of the architects of devolution – now recognises it is failing Scotland and that the only way to protect Scotland from toxic Tory policies is by becoming an independent country.”