Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly made clear that she wants any vote to be legally incontestable © Jane Barlow/PA

Nicola Sturgeon has revived plans for a possible second Scottish independence referendum, pledging to publish draft legislation for a new vote before next May’s elections for the parliament in Edinburgh.

Scotland’s first minister announced the resumption of work on the bill in her annual programme for government on Tuesday, alongside plans for a £100m green jobs fund and proposals for a “National Care Service”.

Ms Sturgeon, leader of the pro-independence Scottish National party, put on hold plans for legislation to prepare the ground for a second referendum in March to focus on the coronavirus crisis.

The policy programme document said the combination of the impact of the pandemic and the UK’s exit from the EU showed the “limitations” of the devolved Scottish parliament’s ability to “protect and renew” the country.

“That is why, before the end of this [Scottish] parliament, we will publish a draft bill for an independence referendum — setting out the terms of a future referendum clearly and unambiguously to the people of Scotland,” the document said.

A majority in Scotland voted to remain in the EU in 2016 and the SNP has criticised the approach to Brexit taken by Boris Johnson’s UK government, accusing the prime minister of dismissing their concerns.

Recent opinion polls suggest that for the first time a sustained majority of Scottish voters would back leaving the UK in a second referendum — a result that would reverse the 2014 vote, which rejected independence by 55-45 per cent.

Any unilateral preparations for an independence referendum are largely symbolic because the UK government maintains that Westminster’s approval would be needed for such a vote. Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly made clear that she wants any plebiscite to be legally incontestable.

But polls suggest the SNP is on course for a landslide victory in voting in May for the Scottish parliament, increasing pressure on the UK Conservative government to approve another independence vote.

Ms Sturgeon said the bill would set out a timescale and proposed question for a second referendum.

“At next year’s election, we will make the case for Scotland to become an independent country, and seek a clear endorsement of Scotland’s right to choose our own future,” the first minister said.

Analysts said the support for independence appeared to have been boosted by Brexit and by perceptions that Ms Sturgeon has handled the coronavirus pandemic better than Mr Johnson.

Supporters of Scotland’s three century-old union with England condemned Ms Sturgeon’s plan to put independence back on the parliamentary agenda.

“We need to take Scotland forward and recover from this crisis together, not go back to the divisions of the past,” Douglas Ross, the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said.

Ian Murray, Labour’s only member of the UK parliament for a Scottish constituency, said Ms Sturgeon’s “reckless” announcement showed her top priority was “to divide the people of Scotland”.

“Reopening the constitutional debate will do nothing to help our NHS recover from the pandemic, or help the children who have lost months of education, or help grow our economy,” Mr Murray said.

Aside from the constitutional question, Ms Sturgeon said her programme for government would help to lay the foundations for recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

In a move that will fuel expectations of a big change in how adult care is managed in Scotland, Ms Sturgeon announced a new independent review tasked with “setting out options” for the creation of a National Care Service.

“This is a moment to be bold,” said Ms Sturgeon, who has faced criticism that she has been relatively cautious in policymaking since becoming first minister in 2014.

“The NHS was born out of the tragedy of word war two” she said. “Let us resolve that we will build out of this Covid crisis, the lasting and positive legacy of a high-quality National Care Service for all who need it.”

Ms Sturgeon announced a £60m “youth guarantee” that would ensure all people aged between 16 and 24 the opportunity of university or college, an apprenticeship, employment including work experience, or formal volunteering.

“This plan . . . refuses to accept that their generation will carry the economic scars of Covid into adulthood,” Ms Sturgeon said.

She also promised to invest £100m over five years alongside businesses and other organisations to support the creation of “green jobs”.

The CBI employers lobby said business shared “many of the broad priorities” of the programme for government, but that high-level ambitions must quickly be turned into real action.

“Initiatives like the youth guarantee and a transition training fund could play an important role in creating much-needed opportunities, but speed is of the essence,” said Tracy Black, CBI Scotland director.

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