FMQs: Nicola Sturgeon accuses opposition of attempting to ‘rig’ IndyRef2 question

Nicola Sturgeon has accused opposition parties of attempting to "rig" a second independence vote when asked if her constitution secretary Michael Russell was more expert on setting referendum questions than the Electoral Commission.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Electoral Commission was expert on referendum questions, but backed Michael Russell's position that the question need not be tested by the Commission for a future referendum.

The First Minister was challenged by Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard over statements by Mr Russell that the question in a future second independence referendum should be the same as in 2014 and there was no need to have it tested.

However the Electoral Commission has warned the Scottish Government that to ensure the integrity of a second referendum it must be allowed to test the question, even if it had approved it previously as "one shouldn’t draw any conclusions about what we would be saying now."

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Yesterday at the finance and constitution committee, which is scrutinising the government's Referendums Bill, Mr Russell said that despite the Commission's advice there was no need for the question to be "re-tested".

He said that the Commission had agreed the question in the 2014 referendum - 'Should Scotland be an independent country?' - was of a "neutral formulation" as well as being "direct, short and simple."

Raising the Commission's objections at First Minister's Questions, Mr Leonard asked Ms Sturgeon if Michael Russell was "more expert" in setting a clear transparent and neutral referendum question".

Ms Sturgeon hit back saying the Electoral Commission was obviously more expert, but she did not know "anyone across Scotland, except politicians, who seem to be running scared of the verdict of the Scottish people when that question is asked again. I do no know anybody who doesn't think that question is clear and understandable."

She added: "The question was tested by the Electoral Commission and, more than that, the question was tested in the reality of a referendum.

"Labour and the Tories have now realised clear they won't be able to block the right of the Scottish people to choose their own future, so they're now wondering how they can rig the whole process."

Mr Leonard said the "people of Scotland had chosen their future five years ago" and accused the First Minister or being "prepared to disregard" the integrity of a referendum process. He pointed to advice from the Law Society of Scotland which also warned against precluding the Electoral Commission from testing the question.

He said: "The Electoral Commission and Law Society both say this is the wrong approach, why don't you listen to them? What have you got to hide? Or are you simply trying to rig the process?"

Ms Sturgeon said she was struggling to keep up with the "twists and turns" of his position on a second referendum, and added: "If I'm understanding him right, Richard Leonard is standing here today demanding we test a question, again, for a referendum that he also says shouldn't happen and he's not going to allow to happen. That's the first inconsistency and contradiction in his position.

"Then he says people of Scotland shouldn't have a right to choose their future because we chose our future five years ago, the people of the UK voted on Brexit three years ago yet Richard Leonard supports a second Brexit referendum, and he seems to have missed all that has changed in the five years since the independence referendum when people like him were telling the people of Scotland the only way to protect their membership of the EU was to vote against independence, we now know those promises weren't worth the paper they were written on."

Commenting on the exchange between Nicola Sturgeon and Richard Leonard, Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “There shouldn’t be a divisive and unnecessary second independence referendum.

"Nicola Sturgeon is refusing to listen to the independent Electoral Commission, but most importantly she is refusing to listen to the people of Scotland. Barely a quarter of people support her reckless plan for another Scexit referendum before 2021.

“It’s time for Nicola Sturgeon to remember she is First Minister for everyone in Scotland, not just the minority who support separation.”