HENRY McLeish has said he would vote for Scottish independence in a second referendum if the Union fails to reform itself.

The former Labour First Minister, who has previously danced around his intentions, made the declaration in the Herald podcast with broadcaster Brian Taylor.

“Yes, I would support independence,” Mr McLeish said, adding that he was "sceptical" the Union would change enough for him to endorse it.

He said: “If it’s only economic fears that are binding us within the Union, that’s a pretty poor state of affairs. I believe that Scotland could be independent tomorrow.”

The comments are likely to prove awkward for the current Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, who is staunchly pro-Union. 

The party dismissed Mr McLeish as "yesterday’s man desperately seeking relevance”.

SNP President Michael Russell, who was also on the podcast, said he didn’t think the UK could reform and he hoped Mr McLeish would campaign with him for Yes in Indyref2.

Mr McLeish, who as devolution minister in the 1990s worked on the law underpinning Holyrood, also criticised his own party for a lack of fresh constitutional thinking. 

He dismissed federalism as “not realisable politics” because of the lack of appetite at Westminster and the patchwork of devolved powers across England and Wales.

In a new book, “People, Politics, Parliament: The Settled Will of the Scottish People”, Mr McLeish argues the Union remains highly centralised and needs “radical reform”, with Scotland and other nations and regions getting far more powers.

However that would require a “massive change of opinion” from all the Unionist parties.

He told the podcast: “I’m not an optimist about the possibilities of the Union changing.

“But I do believe there are ways the Union can change to accommodate an assertive, an ambitious, a modern Scotland moving forward. 

“I would like to see that as a possibility…. so that when there’s a referendum, it maybe it needn’t be an Indyref2, what it might mean is there are other questions and options.”

He said Scotland was still “bitterly divided” on the constitutional issue, seven years on from the independence referendum of 2014, and there was “no settled will”.

He also warned Boris Johnson’s “brutal Unionism” risked “dismantling” devolution. 

He said: “We’re not just faced with fighting for a way forward for Scotland, we’re actually looking at the defence of what has been achieved so far.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not Scotland that’s out of step or Northern Ireland or Wales or parts of England, it is the Union’s inability to see the modernity of Scotland’s advance and actually think there is another way forward, where the Union can chance and accommodate what I regard as a multi-nation framework instead of looking at a United Kingdom that won’t give anything away and remains highly centralised.”

Mr McLeish has flirted with independence for many years. 

He said after the Brexit vote of 2016 that he would “think really seriously” about voting Yes, and had also supported holding a second referendum.

However his preference remains to keep the Union.

But he made it clear to Mr Taylor that his patience was running out.

Asked how he would vote in a Yes/No referendum on independence given the current state of the Union, Mr McLeish said: “Let me answer the question by saying I don’t believe there will be an Indyref2 vote within the next five years. 

“What I’m saying, and this is the sting in the tail of my message, is that if the Union doesn’t look like, from Labour or the Conservatives, that it’s going in the way that I’m talking about, then Yes, I would support independence.”

Asked to confirm that he would vote for independence, Mr McLeish said: “Yes. If I’m convinced that the Union... will not change, then I could support independence because I believe that each of the nations of the UK has the right to self-determination and move forward. All I’m arguing is that there’s a chance to do something different, and let’s have a debate about an alternative to independence before there is a vote on independence.”

He added: “If it’s only economic fears that are binding us within the Union, that’s a pretty poor state of affairs. I believe that Scotland could be independent tomorrow.

“But Scots have to make a judgment next time round. 

“As well as the fears they had before, they’ve got to be courageous if they want to take if forward, but they’ve also got to accept that the Brexit insanity has made life more complex and much more difficult as we move forward as a nation.”

Mr Russell said he saw no sign the Union was about to change direction, “no squealing of tyres in the democratic system”, or the UK Government treating Scotland as an equal.

He said: “It’s not going to happen, Henry, and therefore I think we have to make our mind up... and the way to do that is to allow the people to choose. 

“That is not going to be tomorrow, and therefore there is a period between now and whenever the vote is, in which possibly the UK Government could change. 

“Except… in my view, the track record is not good.

“Let’s not keep putting this off forever. I think it’s best we come to a decision now.”

Asked if the Labour party was addressing the issues he had raised, Mr McLeish said: “No, that makes me more perplexed about it.” 

Summing up, he said: “Point one, I don’t think there will be an early referendum, partly because Westminster or Boris Johnson will not allow it. 

"Secondly, I think there will be a referendum... maybe post five years ahead. 

“I think in that referendum, if there’s any suspicion that Westminster is not for turning in any way, then Scots will have a different choice [from 2014].

"Because it will mean voting for an independent Scotland knowing that Westminster does not care enough, or is active enough, to provide the kind of environment in which a modern, ambitious Scotland can move forward.” 

Tory MSP Donald Cameron, who was also on the podcast, denied the Scottish Government had a mandate for Indyref2 and said the country did not want or need another divisive vote.

Mr McLeish became Scotland's second First Minister in 2000 after the death of Donald Dewar, leading the Scottish Execuitive coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

He resigned a little more than a year later after controversy over his office expenses.

SNP depute Leader Keith Brown said: “More and more people in Scotland support an independent Scotland – so it’s welcome that Henry McLeish, one of the fathers of devolution, supports decisions about Scotland being taken by those who live here.

“Independence is normal, and Scotland only has to look to the successes of other small independent European nations like Ireland to consider the immense possibilities that lie ahead.
“The alternative is to let Scotland suffer under Westminster control – yoked to a Tory government which pushed through a Brexit that Scotland didn't vote for, plans a brazen grab on Holyrood's powers, and threatens to cruelly cut the lifeline boost to Universal Credit that ordinary people rely on.

"A former Labour First Minister announces that he is now open to independence, but Anas Sarwar fails to even recognise the cast-iron mandate delivered by the people of Scotland to hold a referendum.

"It is very telling that Henry McLeish - one of the architects of devolution - now recognises it is failing Scotland and that the only way to protect Scotland from toxic Tory policies is by becoming an independent country.”

A Scottish Labour source said: “A predictable pronouncement, from yesterday’s man desperately seeking relevance.”

Labour peer Lord George Foulkes added: "I have heard of rats leaving a sinking ship, but I have never heard of rats joining a sinking ship."