NICOLA Sturgeon was wrong to fire the starting gun on a second independence referendum last year, a former SNP Justice Secretary has said.

Kenny MacAskill – who served as an MSP for 17 years – said the First Minister’s call to arms was premature “and many would argue foolhardy”.

Ms Sturgeon announced she was to seek permission to hold a second referendum in March last year, but later “reset” her strategy following a string of defeats in the General Election.

Writing in The Herald today, Mr MacAskill said the recent unrest within the SNP over the timing of another referendum “reflects a vibrancy within the party”.

Kenny MacAskill: Sturgeon must now clamp down on the clamour for another referendum

But he argued it also indicated “growing frustration for many and a fraying of the otherwise iron self-discipline that once ruled”, and urged Ms Sturgeon to take control of the debate.

He added: “The pronouncement of Indy Ref 2 in March 2017 was an error, unusual from someone normally analytic in assessment, and viewing Brexit as an historic opportunity rather than a huge difficulty.

“It ignored the divide that existed within the party with a third of members having supported it, never mind that many others voted reluctantly and without enthusiasm for an institution that they found being venerated and asked to back unquestioningly.

“It forgot the challenges from the previous vote that concerns over a hard border had been avoided by EU membership, as the issue on the island of Ireland now shows.

“Finally, it ignored the fact that what had cost victory before, namely currency and the economy, had neither been addressed nor were indeed worsened by Brexit.

“The party then lurched into the 2017 elections and the loss of significant numbers of MPs and more importantly talent.”

He continued: “There was Indy Ref 2 tiredness amongst the electorate accentuated by a variety of other factors from election fatigue to a hardening of unionist support, but ultimately what cost the SNP was confusion and disillusionment amongst its own electorate.

“Pulling back from Indy Ref 2 was essential but in June 2017 the First Minister simply kicked it into the long grass and others have retrieved it.”

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Mr MacAskill’s comments come as the issue of the timing of another referendum continues to dominate the SNP deputy leadership contest.

Chris McEleny, a candidate for the role and the leader of the SNP group on Inverclyde Council, has called for another vote in the next 18 months – but some experienced figures have urged caution.

Mr MacAskill, who served as Justice Secretary between 2007 and 2014, said it was not political opponents but “apathy and despondency which are the biggest threat to the SNP and the independence vote”.

Kenny MacAskill: Sturgeon must now clamp down on the clamour for another referendum

He added: “Nicola Sturgeon needs to lead from the front, stating there’ll not be a referendum until the base is built and the opportunity to win’s there. The fog of Brexit has to lift for clarity on currency, borders and the economy.”