Scottish election debate: Party leaders clash over second independence referendum

Scottish party leaders clashed over the prospect of a second independence referendum on Tuesday night in heated televised exchanges marking the start of this year’s election campaign.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon warned that the country would go in the “wrong direction” after the pandemic if decisions about recovery were left to Boris Johnson.

But her opponents said Scotland would not benefit from the “divisiveness” of another vote in the wake of the virus.

Covid-19 and the question of another referendum dominated exchanges in the first TV leaders’ debate of the Holyrood election campaign.

With just the five parties who currently have MSPs in Holyrood taking part, there was no place for former first minister Alex Salmond, who recently made a dramatic return to politics as the leader of the new Alba Party.

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As Scotland looks to move on from the coronavirus pandemic, Ms Sturgeon promised to be an “experienced hand at the wheel” with her SNP party bringing forward “bold policies to drive our recovery”.

But she insisted that when the crisis has passed, people should have a “choice on independence”.

The SNP wants that vote to take place in the first half of Scottish parliament’s five-year term.

But Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross insisted: “We can’t have a recovery and a referendum.”

Meanwhile Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar raised the plight of 69-year old Mary Hudson, 69, from Springboig in Glasgow, who is facing the prospect of travelling to London for cancer surgery.

With her ovarian cancer having returned, her family say she is having to be treated in Hammersmith because staff at Glasgow Royal Infirmary told them they were only treating first occurrences of the disease because of Covid-19 backlog.

Mr Sarwar said the family had been “told by the NHS in Scotland that due to the backlog of Covid, they are not treating recurring cancers, and would only be treating first-time cancers”.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “After the dreadful year we have endured, I want to spend every second, every moment of the next five years of the parliament focusing on putting recovery first.”

He insisted: “This is not the moment for another referendum. We need to put the division behind us and bring the country together.”

But Scottish Green Party co-leader Lorna Slater told the audience Scotland could not return to the “broken system” that was in place before the pandemic.

She confirmed her party would commit to a referendum taking place in the next Holyrood term in its manifesto.

And she added: “Around the room we hear people who are in favour of the union not actually arguing for the union, but instead arguing that the people of Scotland shouldn’t have the right to choose.”

Mr Ross highlighted the coronavirus vaccine programme as being one of the strengths of Scotland being in the UK.

With more than half of all Scottish adults having had their first dose of the vaccination, he said: “That’s the union working, the United Kingdom getting the vaccines that are delivered by our NHS staff, our British armed forces and volunteers.

“That’s the union working for people right now.”

The debate ended with all five of the party leaders pledging to work to tackle abusive behaviour during the campaign.

Mr Sarwar, who is the first political leader from an ethnic minority background in the UK, said “It doesn’t matter where it comes from or who it is directed towards.

“Whether they’re on our side or a different side, we have a duty to condemn those perpetrators and show solidarity with the victims.

“That’s a cast-iron commitment from me.”

Press Association

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