Nicola Sturgeon’s government will restart work on a new prospectus for Scottish independence with the aim of holding a new poll before the end of 2023.
The first minister put a second independence referendum at the heart of her programme for government – which outlines her legislative ambitions for the next five years of parliament – on Tuesday.
Sturgeon sounded the clarion call for independence in the first few minutes of her speech to the Scottish parliament, in which she said the democratic mandate for a second poll was “beyond question”.
Also at the top of the agenda was Scotland’s recovery from the Covid pandemic, including the creation of a national care service, a plan to tackle the country’s drug deaths crisis with an extra £250m in funding, and reforms to the gender recognition act (GRA).
The first minister said her intention was to hold another referendum in the first half of this parliament and before the end of 2023 – “Covid-permitting”.
“At this juncture in history, it is essential that we consider the kind of country we want to be, and how best to secure it,” she told MSPs.
“These are questions which cannot be avoided nor postponed until the die is already cast – so we intend to offer the choice.
“We will do so only when the Covid crisis has passed, but our aim – Covid permitting – is that it will be in the first half of this parliament before the end of 2023.”
At the end of last month the SNP and Scottish Greens reached a co-operation agreement that will see power sharing between the two sides.
Following her speech, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross accused Sturgeon of delaying the programme in order to prioritise taking the Greens into government.
“Her priorities were wrong last week, and they’re still wrong this week,” he said.
“Because another independence referendum is front and centre of the first minister’s plans for the year ahead.
“In a statement that is 27 pages long, it takes to just the fourth paragraph to mention independence. It’s right up there in front of all of the other priorities that we should have.”
Responding to heckling from the chamber, he added: “I’m quite happy to take an intervention from any member who thinks it’s correct, that in the time of a pandemic, that it’s right for the first minister to yet again prioritise independence over anything else.”
The government would get the ball rolling on the independence agenda by restarting work on a detailed prospectus on independence, which had been put on hold by the Covid pandemic, Sturgeon said.
But she denied it was the sole focus of her government, pointing to the “26 and a half pages of this statement that set out bold, ambitious plans to lead Scotland out of this pandemic”.
Among the other measures in Sturgeon’s programme were plans for a national care service to tackle the social care crisis.
Sturgeon confirmed the government will introduce a national care service bill in this parliamentary year, with the aim of establishing an operational service by the end of the parliament – a move she said was “the most significant public service reform since the creation of the national health service”.
The new service will go hand-in-hand with an £800m increase in social care funding over the five years of parliament while charges for non-residential care will be removed.
“The establishment of the national care service will spark much debate and it is vital that we get it right,” she said.
“But done well, as we intend, a national care service will be one of the biggest ever achievements of this parliament – and, just like the NHS in the wake of the Second World War, it will be a fitting legacy from the trauma of Covid.”
The first minister also confirmed that a gender recognition reform bill that would make it easier for people to change their legally recognised gender would be introduced in the first year of parliament.
“I understand that some have sincerely held concerns about this legislation, it is therefore worth stressing what it will do, but also what it will not do,” she said.
“It will make the existing process of gender recognition less degrading, intrusive and traumatic.
“In other words, it will make life easier for one of the most stigmatised minorities in our society. I think that is something any parliament should feel a responsibility to do.
“What it will not do is remove any of the legal protections that women currently have.
“We should never forget that the biggest threats to women’s safety come – as has always been the case – from abusive and predatory men; from deep-seated sexism and misogyny; and, in some parts of the world, from lawmakers intent on taking away basic freedoms and removing the rights of women to control our own bodies.”
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar branded proposals a “tired and rehashed programme from a party that has clearly run out of big ideas”.
“We are up against a global pandemic, a growing healthcare crisis, a jobs crisis and a climate emergency – there is no time to waste,” he said.
“And this may surprise the first minister but there are ideas bigger than independence.
“What we have seen in this programme for government is just another example of a pattern that defines the SNP’s approach.
“Promise big, never deliver, blame someone else and hope people have forgotten about it when you get round to promising it again.
“Frankly, Scotland deserves better.”