THE SNP has earmarked £600,000 for “referendum preparations” this year against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic and a gruelling economic recovery.

However the sum is barely a quarter of the money the party spent in 2014, suggesting it does not expect to fight Indyref2 this year.

The party’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), included the figure when it agreed the SNP’s budget for 2021 on Saturday.

The party said its spending plans would include £1.5m for May's Holyrood election and "£600k this financial year for referendum preparations” using money from party members' and donations.

SNP strategist Ross Colquhoun later tweeted: “This is fantastic news for the cause of Scottish independence. From today’s @theSNP NEC meeting, £600,000 ring-fenced by the SNP will be spent on independence referendum preparations this financial year.”

The Scottish Tories said it showed the SNP’s priorities were warped and "reckless". 

The move follows the SNP announcing last month that it was to create an “independence taskforce … a dedicated team to focus on delivering a Yes vote” which will be led by former MSP Marco Biagi.

That followed internal criticism of the party leadership for being too slow and cautious over independence.

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The latest amount of money suggests that, despite previously claiming Indyref2 could be held this year, the SNP is no longer planning for it on that timescale. 

In 2014, the SNP spent £1.3m on its own referendum campaigning, plus another £825,000 bailing out the supposedly self-financing Yes Scotland campaign, which ended up broke and unable to pay its bills.

Nicola Sturgeon last year said she wanted Indyref2 in the early part of the next parliament, which runs until 2026, but her Constitution Secretary Mike Russell last week dropped that mantra and said it would merely be at an “appropriate” time after the Covid pandemic.

Recent polls show the SNP on course to win the Holyrood election, potentially with a second overall majority. 

However the party has also been riven by divisions over its approach to independence, transgender rights, and the bitter rift between Ms Sturgeon and Alex Salmond.

Mr Salmond is due to tell a Holyrood inquiry on Wednesday that his successor repeatedly mislead parliament and broke the ministerial code - a resignation offence she denies.

Although the SNP has said that it will bring forward a referendum bill in the next parliament if re-elected, Boris Johnson has shown no sign he will grant Holyrood referendum powers.

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He has already rejected Ms Sturgeon’s request for a transfer of powers under Section 30 of the Scotland Act, and said the No result of 2014 should stand for a generation.

Reacting to the SNP’s budget plans, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: “This clearly shows where the SNP’s priorities lie. 

“As Scotland continues to fight the pandemic, they are focussed on pressing ahead with plans for a reckless referendum potentially as early as this year.

“Setting aside this vast sum of money to help preparations for another referendum shows their commitment to return Scotland to the politics of division all over again.

“We should be focussed on continuing the success of the vaccine programme and fighting to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods. Instead Nicola Sturgeon and other senior SNP figures repeatedly refuse to rule out holding an illegal referendum in 2021."

Interim Scottish Labour leader Jackie Baillie said: “The people of Scotland are clear that they want their Government to prioritise the recovery from Covid-19 and the economic crisis it has caused, rather than another independence referendum.

"It is astounding, but not surprising, that with our Test and Protect system still not fit for purpose, with workers and businesses fearing for their future and struggling to access support, and with a massive increase in waiting times for NHS treatment, that the SNP is focusing on constitutional upheaval - and not the recovery Scotland so badly needs.”

READ MORE: SNP spent £825k bailing out Yes Scotland after indyref

Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said:
“This shows the out of touch priorities of the SNP.

“People are losing their lives and livelihoods, yet the nationalists want to prioritise a second referendum on leaving the UK that would divide the people of Scotland.

“And despite spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on their negative vision for our country, SNP leaders still can’t answer the most basic questions - such as what currency a separate Scotland would use.

“Rather than obsess about how to divide people, we need politicians determined to bring people together so that we can recover from the pandemic together.”