SCOTLAND will be an independent member of the European Union well within a decade, according to Michael Russell, who has announced he will be stepping down from Holyrood next spring.

Speaking to The National, the constitutional affairs and Europe secretary argued it was in the country’s interests for there to be a second referendum this year. He revealed the First Minister wanted him to stand for re-election but respected his decision.

“I would like a referendum this year, I think that is perfectly feasible and we need to campaign for one and if there is one I will be very active in my ministerial role in it,” he said.

Asked if he thought there will be a referendum given Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s rejection of a request to transfer powers to Holyrood to hold a legally binding vote, Russell, who represents Argyll and Bute, said: “I would like there to be. I think it is the right time for there to be one. It is the right opportunity for Scotland and both the First Minister and I have made it clear that it’s right to get it done and that it’s also the right thing for business and for others to get it done now. We should be in a position to re-enter the EU in the smoothest possible way.”

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He added: “It’s up to the people of Scotland to campaign and argue for one. [Charles Stewart] Parnell’s words are absolutely appropriate: ‘no man can stand in the path of a nation’. If people want it, they should have it. We have seen a lot of people moving towards it over the last few months. We have a mandate for it. I never say never and I think it is the right time for it and Boris Johnson is not the be all and end all.”

Asked if we will see an independent Scotland in Europe within a decade, he said: “Of course and sooner than that.” He went on: “I never give a time scale, but I want a referendum this year. And I believe the people of Scotland faced with the choice of Brexit Britain or an independent membership of the EU will choose the latter. It is coming and I believe it is coming soon.”

Russell revealed too the First Minister wanted him to stand as a candidate in 2021 and that he will continue to serve in his current Cabinet role – which was expanded in the recent mini reshuffle – until he steps down as an MSP.

Asked what she said when he told her the First Minister he would not be fighting to regain his seat, Russell said: “I’m not going to recount private conversations but I’m sure she would have liked me to go on as many people will. But she respects people’s decisions and she said to me she wanted me to continue to serve in government until the election ... And I said I would be happy to do so and that’s why I have taken on more work.”

Announcing his decision in a statement at a meeting of his constituency association in Tarbert, Argyll earlier Russell said he will be 72 by the end of the next parliament and thought somebody younger would be better suited to fulfil the demands of the seat.

“Of course, my biggest challenges have been those I have faced since August 2016 when I was tasked by the First Minister with attempting to secure Scotland’s place in Europe and to make Scotland’s voice heard in Whitehall,” he said.

He added he intends to be “active in the political sphere” after he steps down.

Russell was first elected as a MSP in 1999. He lost his seat in 2003 but returned to Holyrood in 2007. During his time in government he served as Environment Minister and then Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution, before moving to the role of Education Secretary, which he held until 2014. He was appointed minister for UK negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe in 2016. In June 2018 he became Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and International Relations and his portfolio was expanded in February 2020 when he became Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs.