SNP has broken the Covid truce over Scottish independence – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

Nicola Sturgeon insisted work on independence would cease during the coronavirus crisis, but the Scottish Government is now planning new legislation about a second referendum even though lives and livelihoods are still at risk, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

Nicola Sturgeon has returned to the Scottish independence debate when she should be concentrating on Covid, says Alex Cole-Hamilton  (Picture: pool photo/Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail
Nicola Sturgeon has returned to the Scottish independence debate when she should be concentrating on Covid, says Alex Cole-Hamilton (Picture: pool photo/Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail

It doesn’t happen often, but I lost my rag in Parliament last week. Something inside of me snapped and I let fly at the government benches with everything I had.

The trigger for my tirade can be found in the contents of the First Minister’s Programme for Government. What specifically got my goat was the inclusion within it of a piece of legislation that will define the timescales and the question used on the ballot of a second independence referendum. I know, I know it’s an SNP government and independence is their main thing, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But six months ago we were told that everything had changed.

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At the start of the coronavirus emergency, the government dumped many important pieces of legislation and areas of policy crying out for attention to clear the decks for our pandemic response. The expansion of publicly funded childcare, hospital waiting-time targets, the threadbare condition of our police estate, action on climate change and reform of the Gender Recognition Act were all piled on to the Bonfire of Covid.

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So all-consuming was the pandemic that it was put to us that every arm of government and every minute of parliamentary time would be taken up with the enactment of public health measures and the design and administration of lockdown. We didn’t like it, but went along with it. We were in the teeth of an international emergency and when that happens, the role of the opposition changes.

The emergency continues, but we’ve all learned to live around it and much of lockdown has been lifted. As such, there was some hope we could revive some of these abandoned policies in this, our final session of Parliament before the election. Instead, Nicola Sturgeon decided to use precious parliamentary time to satisfy her fan base with another divisive skirmish around the constitution. That, for me, is unforgivable.

We aren’t just talking about an afternoon of rhetorical knockabout between those who support independence and those who oppose it – actual legislation takes time and effort. Otto Von Bismarck once said that “Laws are like sausages, it’s better not to see them being made.” And that statement is as true in 21st-century Holyrood as it was in the 19th-century Reichstag.

On the announcement of a new Bill, a laborious process swings into motion. Scottish Government political staff and civil servants start scribbling. It costs time and money. It’s certain to distract and divert parliamentarians’ attention.

Some senior SNP figures haven’t stopped agitating for independence at a time when our mailbags have been packed with people and businesses needing help. But the First Minister insisted the work on independence had ceased as far as she and her government were concerned. That lasted all of five months. It can’t have escaped her attention that lives and livelihoods are still at threat.

This is a period in Scottish history when there are children waiting over two years for first-line mental health treatment; when we have the worst drug deaths in the whole of the developed world; when our educational attainment gap is widening all the time; and when the extension of state-funded childcare can mean the difference between families in poverty and families making a living.

These are all problems of the SNP’s creation and their negligence. A final-term Programme for Government which addresses these things would command cross-party support. Yet because they’ve dallied for so long, the Government know these things will be impossible to fix before the election. As such, they have used the emergency as a means of deferring action. That the First Minister should still find time for a constitutional sideshow, that will consume months of parliamentary time, should make all of us angry.

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Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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