SNP members have backed the Scottish Government plans for the timing of another independence referendum at the “earliest” possible moment after the Covid crisis.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called for another referendum by the end of 2023 when the coronavirus pandemic is over, although the UK Government remains opposed to another vote.
Party members have now endorsed that timescale, backing a motion by 535 votes to 10 that sets out plans for another vote “as soon as it is safe to hold a proper, detailed, serious national debate on independence”.
It states that the date should be determined by “data-driven criteria” about when the public health crisis is over.
Chris Hanlon, the SNP’s policy development convener, insisted the timescale for another vote was “not kicking the can down the road”, amid some calls from pro-independence supporters for another referendum as soon as possible.
Mr Hanlon said the recent Holyrood election result, in which the SNP won 64 of the 129 seats, “clearly and unambiguously” gave an endorsement for another referendum.
“In May of this year, we asked the sovereign people of Scotland to authorise the next Scottish Government to hold a referendum on drawing to close a political union with the rest of the United Kingdom that is no longer fit for purpose and can only hamper our efforts to rebuild from Covid,” Mr Hanlon said.
He added: “We must put data before dates.
“This resolution expects our party’s leadership to consult the relevant subject matter experts to define a set of data-driven criteria.
“Once they are met, the people of Scotland can be confident that it’s safe to hold a referendum, like we did in 2014, that engages the whole population in scrutinising the proposal and has the same energy vigour and passion we saw seven years ago.”
“That’s not kicking the can down the road.
“That’s sticking the ball on the penalty spot and waiting for the whistle to blow. And blow it will, all too soon.”
Appearing on Sky News’ Trevor Phillips On Sunday show, Ms Sturgeon rejected suggestions that she was using coronavirus as an excuse to delay.
The First Minister said: “This is not just about safety of polling stations, it is about making sure that as the country faces a big, important decision about its future, it’s able to focus on that properly, and that it doesn’t have looming over that a Covid crisis.”
Pointing to spiking cases of coronavirus, she said: “I don’t think that kind of situation would be the best backdrop to the country considering and making a decision on its future.
“I’m not going to say a precise level of infections, but you would want to see the Covid situation under control, the pressure on our National Health Service significantly lower than it is right now, a sense that we weren’t still in the acute phase of this crisis.
“But also crucially, and I think this is crucial, a sort of overall environment in the country where people are not, in their day-to-day lives, being asked to even, if not comply with legal restrictions still, limit or restrict their own day-to-day behaviour.”
It was suggested to Ms Sturgeon that rather than being concerned about Covid-19, she was waiting until it was politically advantageous.
But she said that any politician would “factor those kind of judgments into those decisions” and added: “I am very confident that when this question is next to put people in Scotland will vote yes.”
She said: “My primary consideration is to do what’s right for the country, when is it right.”
Following the passing of the motion, the Scottish Government’s Constitution Secretary, Angus Robertson, said: “There is a cast-iron democratic mandate for an independence referendum, with the SNP receiving the highest share of the vote and the strongest electoral endorsement in the history of devolution in May’s election.
“I am delighted that conference has now backed this motion to pass the Draft Referendum Bill and ensure that Scotland’s future will be put into Scotland’s hands with a referendum for recovery.
“We are already seeing plans for Tory cuts as they slash Universal Credit and plans to hike up National Insurance, taking from those that need it most.
“Scotland cannot afford another decade of Tory austerity – we have already seen the devastating impact cuts can have on the most vulnerable in society as the Tories build their vision of recovery on the backs of the poorest in society.
“That is on top of Brexit and the massive damage it is causing being foisted on us by Boris Johnson. Independence will give us the chance to rejoin a market around seven times larger than the UK, with all the huge opportunities it will bring.
“We cannot trust the Tories to protect the future of Scotland. That is why it so important Scotland has the choice to forge a different, better path with independence.”
Labour’s shadow Scotland secretary Ian Murray said: “SNP conference backing a referendum is hardly a shock, but for most people this is the last thing on their mind.
“The SNP were all too aware this during the election, which is why they promised to focus on recovery.
“They’ve broken that promise.
“It’s time for them to stop talking to themselves about their separatist obsession and get on with the job they were actually elected to do.”
Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “The SNP leadership should spend more time listening to the country and less time listening to its supporters.
“It’s insulting that any politician would think planning for a divisive second referendum is a good use of parliamentary and government time and resources.
“The people of Scotland want their governments to bring people together and prioritise the NHS, jobs and the climate emergency – and the Scottish Government should focus on using the wide range of powers it has to build the recovery.”