Scotland leaders' debate: Nicola Sturgeon defends 2020 independence vote plans

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
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Rousing clashes over independence, austerity and public services have dominated the final Scottish TV leaders' debate of the election campaign.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was forced to defend her plans to hold a second vote on Scottish independence in 2020 as the country's political leaders clashed ahead of Thursday's election.

The BBC event in Glasgow saw Ms Sturgeon, Tory interim leader Jackson Carlaw, Labour’s Richard Leonard and Liberal Democrat chief face a live studio audience just two days before voters go to the polls.

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The SNP leader insisted that circumstances in Scotland have changed “significantly and dramatically” since the 2014 referendum.

“I do believe that people in Scotland when they get the choice again will vote to be independent because the last few years have demonstrated to us the price that we are paying for not being independent,” she said.

“Scotland has been treated with complete and utter contempt.”

But Tory leader Jackson Carlaw said Ms Sturgeon has not accepted the outcome of the 2014 independence or the Brexit referendum.

“She’s already said that if she didn’t win a second referendum on Brexit, she wouldn’t accept it,” Mr Carlaw said.

“Does anybody here believe if she lost a second independence referendum she wouldn’t then start a campaign for a third.

“We spend all this time talking about the constitution. What powers does the Scottish Parliament have? It has powers over education, powers over health, powers over justice, powers over our economy. It’s those public services that are currently struggling because Nicola Sturgeon’s first, second, third and fourth priority is the constitution - not your jobs, not your health service, not your schools and not the Scottish economy"

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said a second independence referendum would “mount chaos on chaos” as Brexit divisions continue to prevail.

“I think people have seen how difficult Brexit is, how breaking up a union of 40 years has been, the turmoil, the division, the economic damage that comes with it,” Mr Rennie said.

Mr Leonard rejected claims that the anger over austerity and constitution among Scots was an issue with Westminster.

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“It’s not how the UK Government has treated Scotland it’s how the Tory Government has treated Scotland,” he said

Another solution could come about “with a change of Government, with the election of a redistributive Labour Government.

But the Tory interim leader found himself under fire when he attempted to defend the climate of austerity cuts of the past decade, insisting that many had predicted “mass unemployment” as a result of the financial crisis at the time.

“So people had a wage freeze, yes there were cuts. All of that was designed to ensure we did not have millions of people out of work - and in that sense we did not,” Mr Carlaw said.

But one audience member told Mr Carlaw; “Many, many more people are having to relay on food banks right across the entire country.”

Another added even Scots in work were relying on food banks because “they don’t earn enough money.”

Ms Sturgeon said: “Listening to Jackson Carlaw, it’s almost as if he’s saying 'you’ve never had it so good'. He sounds completely and utterly out of touch.”

The First Minister and SNP leader insisted the choice must be available to Scots "because Brexit is going to do real damage".

She plans to hold a second referendum in the second half of next year - when the UK could be in a transition period as it leaves the European Union.

Pressed on why a second independence referendum should take place so soon after the 2014 vote, which was described at the time as a "once-in-a-lifetime" event, Ms Sturgeon said with the transition period under way it would be "important for Scotland to make that choice".

Asked by an audience member if Brexit would make a vote for independence "inevitable", Mr Carlaw insisted: "I don't necessarily believe there will be a second independence referendum, we promised it wouldn't be for a generation, and so I don't think it will be until a generation has passed that we should put ourselves and our country through that again."

The Conservative hit out at his rival leaders for failing to accept the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum - although Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain part of the European Union.

Mr Carlaw said: "My view is the most divisive thing you can do is to refuse to accept the outcome of the vote when you put it to the people, you can't have disposable democracy."

He added: "A million Scots voted with the majority in the rest of the UK to leave the European Union and our duty is to get the best possible deal to leave the European Union, you have to respect that democratic outcome."

Ms Sturgeon insisted: "It's not democracy if people are not allowed to change their minds when the circumstances change, and circumstances in Scotland have changed dramatically and significantly since the 2014 referendum.

"I do believe that people in Scotland when they get the choice again will vote to be independent, because the last few years have demonstrated to us the price we are paying for not being independent.

"A broken Westminster system has imposed austerity on Scotland against our will and of course is threatening to impose Brexit upon us. Our voice is being ignored, our votes are being disregarded."

Liberal Democrat Mr Rennie said the experience of Brexit had put Scots off independence, saying: "People have seen how difficult Brexit is, how breaking up a union of 40 years, the turmoil, the division, the economic damage that has come with it. We shouldn't mount chaos upon chaos."

He called on Scots to unite with others across the UK to try to keep the UK in the European Union, urging them: "Let's not give up on that battle."