AN independence referendum will take place within a year of the SNP winning a majority of seats at next year’s Holyrood elections, according to a former Scottish Government minister.

Alex Neil, who served in both Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond’s Cabinets, said he believed the new vote would take place with or without powers being handed by Boris Johnson to the Scottish Parliament to hold it.

The MSP for Airdrie and Shotts, who was first elected to Holyrood in 1999, told The National he was seeking to stand again in 2021 as it could be “the independence election”.

His intervention follows two opinion polls in recent weeks which put support for independence at 54% and also pointed to the SNP winning a substantial majority and returning a record fourth term in office.

The survey, Panelbase on behalf of the Sunday Times, also found strong backing for Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, with the First Minister’s approval rating on the issue reaching 60 points.

The survey of 1026 Scottish voters, which was conducted between June 30 and July 3, recorded a four-point jump for the SNP in the Holyrood constituency vote, taking the party to 55%. The Conservatives dropped six points to 20% of the vote, while Labour went up one point to 15%.

“I am standing next year and I’ve told party headquarters. It could be the independence election, the way things are going,” Neil said.

“The polls at the moment are very good. We shouldn’t be complacent, of course, but if we get a mandate for a referendum I don’t see how Johnson can say no. The bigger the SNP

majority, the less chance there is for him to say no.”

Asked if the referendum could happen within a year of polling day, Neil added: “Absolutely, there is no reason why not. The legislation [for a referendum] shouldn’t take too long to get through given we now have our own legislation on the statute book about how a referendum is run.

“So there is no reason why it would be delayed beyond a year.”

Neil said it would be better to follow the same process as that which lay behind the 2014 referendum, with powers handed to Holyrood under a Section 30 order.

However, he added that if the Prime Minister refused to grant the order, a referendum would be held regardless.

He said: “There are many constitutional lawyers who think we don’t need a Section 30 order anyway. If the SNP get the number of seats the Panelbase poll is suggesting, it would not be feasible for Boris Johnson to turn it down. If it did, he would destroy the Tory Party in Scotland as it would be so anti-democratic.”

Neil forecast the Yes side would win “if it played its cards right”, adding that the SNP should update its case from the publication of its economic blueprint in 2018, authored by former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson.

He also said the SNP should revise its position on an independent Scotland joining the EU. Neil said he supported becoming a member of the European Free Trade Association (Efta) instead.

He said: “The Yes side needs to mobilise and update its case now, but what is clear is that we will never get a better opportunity than next year to do it in my view. A lot of things in Andrew Wilson’s report – it’s no fault of Andrew’s – are now outdated. The whole debate about the national deficit and the national debt that can be tolerated has been revolutionised by the economics of the coronavirus.

“We also need to rethink our European position – I believe we should seek to be a member of the Efta.”

Commenting on the poll, the UK’s leading political scientist, Professor Sir John Curtice, said it was the first time in polling history that Yes had been ahead for such a long period.

In an article for the Sunday Times, Sir John said: “Never before have the foundations of public support for the Union looked so weak.

“Our latest poll from Panelbase confirms other recent polling that has suggested those who intend to vote yes in a second independence referendum have nudged ahead.

“This is the first time in polling history that ‘yes’ has been ahead over such a sustained period.”