Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of recklessness after she said a second independence referendum should be held in “the earlier part of the next parliament” despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking ahead of the SNP conference, which begins tomorrow, the First Minister said that while her full focus remains on dealing with Covid-19, there are a “variety of reasons” for a referendum in the near future.
She refused to rule out a referendum taking place next year, despite UK Government ministers repeatedly saying they would refuse to allow a repeat of the 2014 vote, hailed at the time by the SNP as a “once in a generation” event, to take place.
Ms Sturgeon said: “As we come out of the pandemic, and this will be true for all countries, but there are particular aspects of this in Scotland’s case, there are questions all of us have to ask,” she said.
“What kind of countries, societies do we want to be as we emerge from the pandemic?”
Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, has claimed a referendum will take place next year. Asked whether she endorsed that timetable, Ms Sturgeon said she had not ruled it in or out.
However, even if the UK Government did agree to another referendum, it would be highly unlikely that a vote could take place next year.
The Holyrood election is not until May next year, and there would have to be protracted negotiations both with UK ministers and the electoral commission over the terms of the vote and campaign.
Legislation would then have to be passed, which takes several months, ahead of an official campaign period which for the 2014 referendum was 16 weeks.
Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, has said the UK Government would not allow another vote to take place until a “generation” - which he defined as 25 to 40 years - has passed since 2014.
Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: "On the day the SNP Government is questioned on its inability to keep care homes safe, we find the First Minister had been spending time planning a referendum.
"Scotland has been through huge turmoil over the last nine months. We haven’t even embarked on the economic recovery from the pandemic and the First Minister wants to spend months or even years dividing the country over Scotland going its own way with independence.”
Polling on the question of independence has shown a consistent lead for Scotland leaving the UK in recent months.
Experts have suggested that a combination of Brexit, the UK Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and disapproval of Boris Johnson is driving the spike in support for breaking up the Union.
Ms Sturgeon said that the pandemic has “proven” that “we can do things really quickly in the face of crisis”.
She added: “Is it a Westminster government that seems determined in taking us in the wrong direction, taking us out of Europe, with many priorities that are not shared by the majority of people in Scotland?
“Or do we want our future to be guided and steered by a Scottish government of whatever party in the future that is accountable to the Scottish people, with the interests and the priorities of the Scottish people at heart?”
Watch: How England's new three-tier COVID system will work
She said she had not put a date on when a potential second referendum would be yet but will “put a more precise timescale on what we believe should happen” in the SNP manifesto.
Pamela Nash, chief executive of the Scotland in Union campaign group, said: “This is reckless talk from the First Minister.
“It will take years for our health service and economy to recover from the pandemic, and that will have to be the entire focus for the Scottish Government for the next few years.
“Seeking to divide us with another referendum is the wrong priority, and it is not the priority of the people of Scotland.
“Rather than trying to tear us apart, the SNP should focus on uniting us.”