THE country’s most senior trade unionist has urged the Scottish Labour movement to back Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second independence referendum.

STUC general secretary Grahame Smith said the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland had to be acknowledged in the wake of last month’s general election result.

Although he stopped short of endorsing independence, he also said the Scottish Labour party and unions had “nothing to fear and much to gain” from considering what leaving the UK could look like.

The SNP said his intervention in the constitutional debate was “significant and welcome”.

Mr Smith has previously been circumspect about Indyref2, given divided opinions among the 500,000 trade union members the Scottish Trades Union Congress represents.

However in November, he announced he would retire as general secretary after 14 years in the spring, a move which appears to have freed him from past restraints.

Writing in the forthcoming issue of the Scottish Left Review, Mr Smith said Labour last had a “compelling offer” on the constitution when it proposed a devolved Scottish Parliament in the 1980s and 1990s, “but not now”.

He said The Vow of greater devolution “cooked up by Gordon Brown” on the eve of the 2014 independence referendum, “may have contributed to the ‘no’ outcome but it hasn’t quelled demand for further constitutional change or support for the SNP (largely at Labour’s expense)”.

Referring to Ms Sturgeon’s drive for a new referendum this year based on SNP gains in the election, he said: “The First Minister has made it clear that she will now push for indyref2.

“This has left Labour in a quandary: it cannot hold, as it has, that the overall election result gives the Tories a Brexit mandate, and simultaneously maintain the result in Scotland cannot be viewed as a mandate for indyref2.

“The democratic wishes of the people of Scotland need to be acknowledged. The Scottish Labour movement should support indyref2.”

However he said the Labour movement should also “confront the question of what independence actually means in a modern geo-political and economic context”.

He went on: “No country exists independently. Whether Scotland’s currency is the pound, euro or its own, the ability of its government to act independently will be constrained by the nature of its trading relationships and the strictures of a Central Bank in either London or Frankfurt. Membership of the international community comes with obligations to abide by on a wide range of minimum rights.

“While the question on the ballot paper may remain: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, the real question is what powers, or what elements of Scotland’s sovereignty, are Scottish voters willing to share and with whom?

“The Labour movement has nothing to fear and much to gain from constructive engagement on this. It needs a compelling offer on the constitutional question, without which it will struggle to get the public to respond to the many positive policies it advocates and constitutional rather than class politics will continue to dominate.”

Although Ms Sturgeon has called for Indyref2 in 2020, there appears little prospect of Boris Johnson giving Holyrood the power for it.

The SNP MP Kenny MacAskill this week admitted the chance of Indyref2 in 2020 was probably “nil” and that was “no bad thing”, given the SNP had yet to fix problems in its losing independence prospectus of 2014.

Mr Smith’s call for the Scottish Labour party and trade unions to back Indyref2 follows two Labour MSPs, Monica Lennon and Neil Findlay, agreeing with Ms Sturgeon that the Scottish people should decide its timing, not Westminster.

Also writing in the new Scottish Left Review, Mr Findlay said: “We cannot deny the people of Scotland a second referendum where the majority is calling for it. However a clear proposition... is impossible until we know the outcome of Brexit and that will not happen in 2020.”

He added: “Going back to the days of ’Better Together’ will not help us win back those lost voters or win elections again. Fighting for perpetual second place by fishing in the shallow pool of so called ‘unionist voters’ will never enable Labour to win.”

Labour has said it would not “stand in the way” of Indyref2 if the SNP and Greens won a majority at Holyrood in the 2021 election.

However it has not actively embraced Indyref2, and Scottish leader Richard Leonard has focused on a constitutional convention to discuss the distribution of power within the Union since the election.

SNP deputy leader Keith Brown said: “Grahame Smith is entirely right to say that the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland should be respected. Scotland’s future should be in Scotland’s hands not those of Boris Johnson.

“No politician or political party should stand in the way of people having that right to choose.

“The Scottish Labour movement should take seriously the advice of Scotland’s top trade unionist and engage positively over how we build a fairer, more prosperous country with the powers of independence.”

Mr Smith is seen as close to the Scottish Government, and has a number of paid positions on public sector boards, as well as being a member of the First Minister’s standing council on Europe.

He is on the board of Skills Development Scotland, which pays up £6240 a year, and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which pays another £4700 a year.

He is also on the Scottish Government’s Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board, and can claim £250 a day for work related to it.

SNP ministers also provide almost two-thirds of the STUC’s income through its training arm, STUC Training Ltd, far outweighing affiliation fees from trade unionists.

The reliance on public money led to criticism from within the union movement that the STUC had lost its way under Mr Smith.

However Mr Smith has also criticised the SNP Government in the past, particularly its “pathetic excuses” for not hiking taxes on the wealthy to pay for public services.