DOWNING Street advisers privately conceded that Scotland could have a referendum on independence without Westminster’s consent, previously classified documents from Tony Blair’s premiership have disclosed.

An email from the then Prime Minister’s key aide Pat McFadden (below) ahead of releasing plans for devolution in 1997 also revealed “a couple of very worried Scottish MPs” were concerned about “the slippery slope to independence”.

The National:

In the email to Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell, McFadden quoted Donald Dewar, who was Scottish secretary at the time, following speculation in the press that the Scottish Parliament would be able to hold an independence referendum.

Scotland voted in favour of devolution in September 1997, a key Labour general election pledge, creating its own Parliament responsible for matters such as education, health and transport.

But it was not until 2014 that an independence referendum was held, with 55% voting against proposals to become an independent country.

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Secret emails from Blair’s early days in government, released by The National Archives in Kew, appear to suggest it was known within some circles in Westminster that an independence referendum could, in theory, be held by Scotland.

McFadden wrote: “In the Scottish papers at the weekend there was some speculation over whether the Scottish Parliament would be able to hold a referendum on independence ...

“The reserved powers model means that the Scottish Parliament will have the power to legislate on anything not in the reserved list.

“Therefore, it can have referendums on anything it wants, even if it cannot enact the result.”

He added: “A couple of very worried Scottish MPs have rung me about this. It scares them a great deal that such a referendum could take place.

“Donald’s view is that the Scottish Parliament can have a referendum on whatever it likes, even matters outside its competence, which is in line with the logic of the White Paper.”

McFadden, who would go on to become a Labour MP in 2005, asked Powell (below) for the Prime Minister’s view on the matter, although no response from Blair is contained in the tranche of files.

The National:

The papers also suggest some nervousness among UK Government ministers and officials about the prospect of the Scottish Parliament having a direct relationship with the EU and reveal ways to pre-empt such a situation.

A note on June 3, 1997, by McFadden to Blair, following a meeting with the Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine, says: “There needs to be a clear statement that the UK is the member state in Europe and that the UK negotiates on the basis of a single government line.”

It adds: “Members of the devolved bodies can attend and can be called on by the lead UK minister to contribute on certain items where they may have an obvious interest, for example Scotland and fisheries. It is clear however that the UK minister is in charge.”

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The revelations come amid increased public focus on plans by the Scottish Government to legislate to hold a second independence referendum.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly refused to agree a new vote on independence with the Scottish Government by transferring powers to Holyrood under the same legal and parliamentary process which led up to the 2014 vote.

His refusal has led to the Scottish Government finding ways around the decision. Both the SNP and Scottish Greens – who form a majority in Holyrood – support Holyrood’s legislation to hold a new vote. However, the legislation could be challenged by the UK Government in the Supreme Court.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants to hold a second referendum before the end of 2023 on the condition the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

The National: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Thursday June 17, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story Politics Questions . Photo credit should read: Andy Buchanan/PA Wire.

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She favours an agreed referendum with Johnson, but has said she will push on with Holyrood legislation should the Prime Minister reject a new request for a Section 30 order to transfer powers to Holyrood to hold a legally binding vote.

Support for independence climbed to a high of 58% last year with the latest poll published last month putting those backing independence at 48%.

Over the weekend, The National revealed that the SNP are preparing for a new independence referendum campaign with the party publishing new material updating arguments for independence in the context of Brexit and the pandemic.

The National: EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - APRIL 27: Scottish Brexit Minister Michael Russell on the way to First Minister's Questions in the Scottish Parliament, on April 27, 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Ken Jack/Corbis via Getty Images).

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Penned by SNP president Michael Russell (above), who stepped down as MSP for Argyll and Bute ahead of the Holyrood election in May, the SNP’s new glossy booklet is entitled “Your right to decide how Scotland recovers”.

It considers that the UK lags behind many small countries in terms of wealth, happiness, fairness and health.

It says: “Evidence shows that compared to the UK, neighbouring independent countries of similar size to Scotland:

  • Have higher levels of productivity – a key driver of living standards.
  • Have higher pensions, as a proportion of pre-retirement wages.
  • Are more equal.
  • Are wealthier per head.”