Holyrood suspends IndyRef2 debate following attack on Westminster

22 Mar 17

An expected vote by the Scottish Parliament formally to request the UK government to sanction a second referendum on independence has been delayed, after the sitting was suspended in the light of the suspected terrorist attack on Westminster.

Two days of intensive argument at Holyrood had been expected to culminate this evening with the Scottish Greens joining the governing Scottish National Party to approve the request, and the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined in opposing it.  

But Presiding Officer Ken Mackintosh decided, after consultation with party business managers, to suspend the sitting and promised it would resume at some future point. Security at Holyrood was stepped up as details of the Westminster events unfolded.

An often hot-tempered debate about the plans for a so-called IndyRef2 had opened with passionate statements of the contrasting positions from the respective party leaders. 

First minister Nicola Sturgeon said the UK government had created “an unquestionable democratic mandate” for a referendum by ignoring the voice of the Scottish Parliament at every stage of the Brexit process. Scots voted by 62% to 38% to remain in the EU, and Sturgeon has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the UK government to pursue an alternative deal for Scotland, and so avoid the effects of a hard Brexit. 

“In the circumstances we now face, for the UK government to stand in the way of Scotland even having a choice would be, in my view, wrong, unfair and utterly unsustainable,” Sturgeon said.

In reply, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson argued that the independence issue had been settled at the 2014 referendum: “Most people in Scotland are sick to death of the SNP’s games,” she said. “They don’t want another referendum any time soon.”

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said that the independence quest was the only thing that mattered to the SNP, while the Liberal Democrats’ Willie Rennie said the SNP “will use the EU to get a referendum, even though their referendum won’t get the EU”.

But Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Greens, said the case for IndyRef2 stemmed not just from the EU referendum but from the subsequent actions of the UK government, which had refused both to commit to devolving powers repatriated from Brussels and to take on board views of the devolved nations ahead of initiating the Article 50 process for EU withdrawal.

“Theresa May promised to develop a shared approach with all the devolved administrations before moving forward with Article 50,” he said. “We can now see how empty that promise was.”

The debate came as the latest quarterly report from Scotland’s most authoritative economic forecaster, Strathclyde University’s Fraser of Allander Institute, drew a largely gloomy picture of the prospects for Scotland’s public finances over the next few years.

It predicted that the notional Scottish public deficit – the gap between expenditure and tax revenues –  will fall from last year’s 9.5% to between 6 and 7% by 2020.  This would be double the 3% figure expected of EU members, a level that the UK deficit has recently achieved.

Economic growth was also forecast to lag UK levels, though with the gap narrowing. The FAI projected that Scotland’s growth rate would rise over the next three years from 1.2% to 1.4%, against the UK fall from 2% to 1.7% outlined by the chancellor in his recent Budget statement.

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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