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The row stemmed from remarks made by Mr MacNeil, MP for the Western Isles, over the weekend. Mr MacNeil and SNP Councillor Chris McEleny have drawn up a so-called Plan B motion which will be debated at the party conference next month. If ratified, it would see the SNP adopt a policy whereby if Scotland votes in a majority of pro-independence candidates in next year’s Holyrood elections, that will be regarded as a mandate to begin independence negotiations with the UK Government.
Mr MacNeil took to Twitter to hail the move as a “new game in town”, and told The National newspaper: “People need hope now, this motion gives us hope, and it establishes a legitimate route to independence.”
Dean Lockhart MSP, Scottish Conservative Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, told Express.co.uk: “It’s an absolute disgrace that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and the SNP keep talking up another divisive referendum.
“We need to be fully focused on recovering from the damage COVID-19 has caused but the SNP’s priority, as always, is independence.”
Responding to Mr Lockhart’s remarks, Mr MacNeil claimed it was the Tories’ prioritisation of Brexit, rather than independence talk, which was to blame.
He said: “Ask Mr Lockhart then if he is abandoning Brexit which is putting up barrier and damaging the economy three to five times worse than COVID-19 according to London School of Economics.
“At least independence lets us lower barriers and better steward our economy than the Tories and their extreme and foolish Brexit.”
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Addressing the wider issue, Mr MacNeil agreed that adoption of the motion would effectively turn next year’s elections into a kind of de facto referendum, albeit one which Westminster would be under no obligation to act on.
He added: “I am saying that in the event of a Sec 30 being refused, the legitimacy for independence will have to be established at the ballot box one way or another and the only ballot box available will be elections.
“So therefore yes it would have to be an election and preferably the 2021 election.”
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Under current rules in order for a referendum to be held, the UK Government has to grant what is known as a Section 30 order to the Scottish government permitting it to pass laws usually reserved for Westminster.
Such an order was agreed six years ago when then-leaders David Cameron and Alex Salmond signed the “Edinburgh Agreement”, paving the way for the 2014 independence referendum, in which Scotland voted no.
However, in December Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Mrs Sturgeon he was to a second referendum – nicknamed Indyref2 – and would not be granting such an order.
Recent polls have suggested that a majority currently back independence north of the border.
A Survation survey of 1,018 people interviewed between September 2 and 7 suggested a 53/47 split in favour of Scotland going it alone.
Including “don’t knows” the figures broke down to 46 percent in favour, 40 percent against and 13 percent undecided.
Speaking to Express.co.uk last month about Mr Johnson’s reluctance to agree a referendum, polling guru Sir John Curtice, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, said: “The nightmare scenario is if indeed they do say no, one possibility is the SNP will go back to what used to be their position, which is if we win a majority of seats, either in Westminster or a Holyrood election, that is a mandate for independence, end of story.
“What you have to bear in mind is that if the SNP continues to dominate Scotland’s representation in Westminster, there is a non-trivial risk that in 2024 you will end up in a hung Parliament in which the SNP has the balance of power.
“And in those circumstances, if you have denied them a referendum and they have campaigned and they have got a majority of seats in Scotland saying this is a vote for independence, you will find yourself in an even worse pickle, because basically the SNP will just gum up the way the UK Government works.
“They will deny both Tories and Labour the opportunity to form a stable administration unless and until they accept at least probably a referendum.”
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