IF EVER there were an advertisement against a second independence referendum, it was this week’s Scottish Parliament debate on the subject. Running over two days, it was a dismal and depressing spectacle, with MSPs from all sides simply rehashing old lines.
Even the SNP members didn’t seem to have their hearts in it, with absolutely no enthusiasm being displayed for a second independence referendum. The front bench sat with their heads down throughout, more interested in their ministerial papers, or checking their email, than paying attention to what was being said.
One of the few brighter spots came in a contribution from the SNP veteran Bruce Crawford MSP, who made an important point about the need for the debate around a second independence referendum to be conducted with dignity, and in particular for the need for politicians to show leadership with the way in which they use language. He was right to do so. It is just a pity that so few of his Party colleagues appear to have been listening, if the tone of some of the subsequent speeches was any guide.
Matters deteriorated further in Wednesday afternoon’s debate, in the course of which news started to arrive from London about the horrific terror attack on the Houses of Parliament in London. The debate had not long started when MSPs started to receive details, sketchy at first, of shots being fired, and individuals lying dead or injured on the ground.
To many of my colleagues, it seemed wholly inappropriate to be continuing with the debate on such a serious subject, and one focussing on Scotland’s relationship with Westminster, while this situation was developing. It was clear, too, that MSPs were being distracted from the subject of the debate with their concern about events in London. Well-crafted arguments which would normally command attention in the Holyrood Chamber were simply not being given the attention that they required.
It was at this point that I raised a point of order, asking the Deputy Presiding Officer whether it was appropriate that there should be a suspension. At that point I was told that the matter had been discussed and it was decided that proceedings should continue for now. However, shortly thereafter the Presiding Officer, Ken Mackintosh, reoccupied the Chair, and announced that proceedings would indeed now be brought to an end, and the debate reconvened on a later occasion.
It was at this point that we saw an extraordinary outburst from the SNP Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham, who turned furiously to the Conservative benches, gesticulating with a pointed finger, and shouting about giving in to terrorism. It was an incredibly inappropriate act at a time when individuals in London, including a police officer protecting Westminster, were lying dying in the street.
Quizzed by the press the following day about Ms Cunningham’s antics, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon refused to condemn them. Ms Cunningham herself would not apologise, and indeed SNP handlers did their utmost to try and protect her from press attention throughout the day, smuggling her out of the Debating Chamber after First Minister’s Questions by a back door route.
Unfortunately, the First Minister has form for not taking action against inappropriate language from those in her own Party’s ranks. A month ago, I raised with her at First Minister’s Questions the case of the Perth SNP Councillor Dave Doogan, Deputy Leader of the administration on Perth and Kinross Council (and former employee of Deputy First Minister John Swinney), who shocked fellow councillors with what was described as an “anti-English rant”.
Cllr Doogan told Perth and Kinross Council that Scotland had been “under the heel of foreign influence and power for three hundred years”, and went on to say: “the island of Britain is no longer subject to the actions of quislings who may seek to see smaller cultures extinguished on an island of coffins by redcoats”.
At the time, Nicola Sturgeon condemned all inappropriate language in general terms, but made no specific condemnation of Cllr Doogan. And, more than a month after his outburst, there is no sign of any disciplinary action having been taken against him.
I think we can only conclude, after the comments from both Cllr Doogan and Ms Cunningham, that the SNP have no intention of dealing with rogue elements in their ranks whose extreme language can only serve to inflame the debate around Scotland’s constitutional future. What a pity that Bruce Crawford’s wise words are not being listened to by the SNP leadership.
If we are to go down the route of a second independence referendum, I fear that the bitterness and divisions in Scottish society that we witnessed in 2014 will re-emerge on a much larger scale. Now is the time for Nicola Sturgeon to show some leadership, and ensure that her own Party’s hierarchy – at Holyrood and in local Councils - lead by example.