Nicola Sturgeon has told Boris Johnson she will see him in court if he tries to stop a second independence referendum.
The SNP leader issued the warning to the prime minister amid tetchy exchanges during the third televised leaders’ debate of the Holyrood election campaign.
She challenged him to try to legally prevent her party from progressing legislation for a referendum, which she said the SNP would pursue even if the UK Government continues to refuse to grant Holyrood the legal powers for a vote, in the same way as in 2014.
However, Ms Sturgeon came under pressure from Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross over the timing of such a vote, as well as a suggestion from the SNP’s Emma Harper that creating a hard border between Scotland and England would create jobs.
But the Moray MP was put on the defensive over his past views on same-sex marriage, and he dodged the question six times when he was asked by Krishnan Guru-Murthy whether the Union was “voluntary”, and if there was a way Scotland could leave.
‘It will push more people towards independence’
With polls predicting a pro-independence majority emerging from next week’s election, the nation’s constitutional future dominated the Channel 4 News debate in Glasgow.
Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie predicted that support for independence would grow the longer the UK Government “dig their heels in” over a Section 30 order to enable Holyrood to arrange a legal referendum.
Ms Sturgeon agreed, and said the Westminster administration would have to take the Scottish Government to court to stop it from holding another vote.
“If Boris Johnson decides to stand in the way, Patrick is right, it will push more people towards independence,” she said.
“But he would have to ultimately take the Scottish Government to court to stop that because we would seek to progress legislation for a legal referendum.
… he would have to ultimately take the Scottish Government to court to stop that because we would seek to progress legislation for a legal referendum.”
“And if Boris Johnson accepted that, by definition that is a legal referendum, and if he didn’t want to accept that he would have to try to block that.”
Asked whether she was suggesting an SNP government could pursue an illegal referendum, the first minister said: “No, I would not hold an illegal referendum, I have never argued that.
“Anybody who has listened will see that I have always argued for a legal, legitimate process because that is the only way to get an independence vote recognised.
“But the idea, and the fact that we’re standing here talking about what happens if a Tory prime minister decides to block Scottish democracy, shows you how absurd this is.”
However, Mr Ross challenged the SNP leader on the timing of such a vote.
“We are speaking about 14 years of failure from the SNP and taking their eye of the ball,” he said.
“Because at stake at this election is securing Scotland’s recovery, rebuilding after the pandemic.
“The SNP and Nicola Sturgeon have explained that they would hold that referendum during our recovery phase, when we should be protecting jobs, improving our educational standards, investing in the NHS.
“All of that is at risk with the SNP, who would take us through another independence referendum.”
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar was quizzed on a report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies that suggested his party’s manifesto could not be afforded, saying he would “accept the criticism”.
As in previous debates, he also sought to cast himself as the voice of reason between the battling SNP and Conservatives.
“We are still in a pandemic. I would just remind people on this stage. I’m sorry but sometimes you do need reminding of that because 10,000 of our fellow citizens have lost their lives,” he said.
“And all you’ve had for 20 minutes so far is politicians bickering in a studio when there are people whose lives and livelihoods are still at risk.
It’s utterly depressing – in fact, it’s grotesque – that we have these competing claims of sleaze, when so many people are suffering.”
“Do we really want to be having these arguments about borders, about currency, denying LSE reports, and denying other expert reports?”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie also portrayed the Conservative and SNP governments as controversy stricken.
“This is utterly depressing, that we have competing claims of sleaze and contacts and money, when we see the scenes in India; it’s a tragedy unfolding,” he said.
“It should put everything into context. It should sober us up. And that’s why I think we don’t want to spend the next five years arguing about independence.”
Mr Rennie added: “It’s utterly depressing – in fact, it’s grotesque – that we have these competing claims of sleaze, when so many people are suffering.”
However, Mr Harvie said Mr Rennie was presenting a “false choice”.
He added: “This is an incredible moment in history, actually. The opportunity to rebuild an economy from the pandemic, is an opportunity to ask questions about the kind of society we want to be on a scale that hasn’t happened since the Second World War.
“And the generation after the Second World War laid foundations that meant, for decades after that, the UK became gradually more equal.
“Now that legacy has been ripped up by successive UK governments, since the 1980s, but we have this extraordinary opportunity.”