Nicola Sturgeon: Independence referendum bill will be published next week

The First Minister played hardball, saying SNP MPs will vote against the Brexit Bill in Parliament.

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The Scottish government will publish an independence referendum bill for consultation next week, Nicola Sturgeon said at the party's conference in Glasgow.

Scotland's First Minister also said that the SNP's Westminster MPs will vote against the Brexit Bill in Parliament, and urged Labour, Lib Dem and moderate Tory MPs to join them in "a coalition against hard Brexit".

Standing in front of the party's biggest ever conference audience, she denounced Theresa May's "high handed announcements" and "toxic" rhetoric at the Conservative party conference, and said it was "high time" she respected the 62 per cent of Scots who voted to remain in the EU. 

Addressing the Prime Minister directly, she said: "The ball, Prime Minister, is in your court."

She said Scotland would try to work out a Brexit settlement that involved the UK, but continued: "Hear this. If you think for one single second that I am not serious about doing what it tales to protect Scotland's interests, then think again. 

"If you can't or won't allow us to protect our interests within the UK, then Scotland will have the right to decide afresh whether it wants to take a different path."

So what is Sturgeon planning? Here are some of the key messages in her speech:

1. The Scottish Parliament is setting out a plan for Brexit

Sturgeon described the Holyrood parliament as "the democratic heartbeat of our nation":

"It’s clear that beyond hard-line rhetoric the UK Government has no detailed plan. So the Scottish Government will set out a plan for Scotland. We will seek to make this plan a key element of the UK’s Article 50 negotiation."

But while we always knew Sturgeon wanted a different deal for Scotland, here is the real demand - more powers for the Scottish parliament:

It will require substantial additional powers for the Scottish Parliament.

All the powers in our areas of responsibility that currently lie with the EU - and significant new powers too.

Powers to strike international deals. And greater powers over immigration. Powers not just to protect our economy, but also our values.

She ended this with a swipe at the Tories' immigration plans: "UK ministers might believe it acceptable to order businesses to create lists of foreign workers. We do not."

2. An independence referendum shows the SNP will pay hardball

The more cautious wing of the SNP sees an independence referendum as a gamble, given the result of the 2014 referendum, the deteriorating economic situation and the fact polls still show more Scots backing remaining in the UK. There is also a general weariness among the Scottish public with referendums. 

But many grassroots activists want another opportunity to ask the question, and if the mood should turn to independence, it would leave the Tories as the party that presided over the break up of the UK. 

Sturgeon has been careful to focus on "listening exercises" and not to rule out a settlement achieved as a devolved member of the UK. So at the moment, this still looks like a political tactic, rather than a definite event. 

She told the conference not to take anything for granted: "It will be a new debate - not a rerun of 2014. We must not assume that people's views - yes or no - are the same today as they were two years ago."

Sturgeon also made a passing reference to protecting the "five interests" she laid out in a post-Brexit speech to the IPPR. These are:

  • democratic interests
  • economic interests
  • social protection interests (workers' rights and the welfare state)
  • solidarity interests (working with other parties)
  • influence interests (sitting at the table)

3. The SNP is putting out feelers for a progressive coalition in Parliament

Sturgeon confirmed the SNP would vote against the Brexit Bill in Parliament. Since there are 56 SNP MPs, this isn't an empty threat, and it could also be a peace offering to those MPs more worried about Scotland leaving the UK than Britain leaving the EU. 

Here's what she said: "I can confirm today that SNP MPs will vote against the Brexit Bill when it come before the House of Commons next year.

"That Bill will repeal the legislation that enacted our EU membership. Scotland didn't vote for that and so neither will our MPs.

"But we will also work to persuade others - Labour, Liberals and moderate Tories - to join us in a coalition against a hard Brexit: not just for Scotland, but for the whole UK."

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.