The challenge to the Cabinet post was made by Alex Cole-Hamilton, one of four remaining Scottish Liberal Democrat MSPs in Holyrood, who said the First Minister’s new Cabinet should focus on Covid recovery rather than constitutional issues.
Nicola Sturgeon has said in the light of a pro-independence majority of MSPs being returned to Holyrood she intends to push for a second independence referendum in 2023.
Speaking in Holyrood to his amendment to the motion which asked for MSP approval for all Cabinet and junior minister positions, Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “Liberal Democrats cannot support the appointment of a Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution.
“On Tuesday the First Minister signalled a welcome change in tone and in direction. Her first act was to create a ministerial office dedicated to the national recovery from Covid19, but that was immediately undermined by her appointment of a Cabinet Secretary, who exists first and foremost to advance the cause of independence.
“This country faces big, important questions over the coming years, on mental health, the drug deaths emergency, climate change and waiting times. For Liberal Democrats the answer to none of those lie in tired old arguments about currency and about borders. As such we believe that there should not be one minute of either ministerial or civil service time afforded to such a portfolio.”
He added: “This reshuffle has seen the vital and substantial issues of mental health and social care conflated into one junior ministerial role, when we would much rather both had been elevated to cabinet level given the gravity and severity of the problems in those areas.
“The First Minister offered the electorate a clear and unambiguous commitment in the election campaign that the national recovery would come first. Her appointment of such a ministerial office undermines that commitment.”
Responding, Ms Sturgeon said the constitution portfolio was not new, and was “not just about independence.”
"It is about making sure Scotland’s voice is heard in the face of the damaging implications of Brexit and making sure Scotland is defended in the face of the Tory power grab on this parliament and this government," she said.
"On the question of independence, the priority I give to Covid recovery is clear, but the fact of the matter is giving the people of Scotland the opportunity to choose independence if that is their wish, is the policy of the government I lead. The SNP won this election on that manifesto and the Scottish Liberal Democrats went from five MSPs to just four.”
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said his party would abstain on the amendment but agreed the government needed to deliver “a national recovery for everyone.”
Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie, whose party voted against Mr Cole-Hamilton’s amendment, said he rejected “the choice between independence or recovery.”
Meanwhile Scottish Conservative Jackson Carlaw – whose party also abstained on the vote – gave a more humorous speech about the new Cabinet appointments, and in particular said he was looking forward to seeing Angus Robertson in lederhosen [the MSP is half Austrian] at the official opening of Parliament.