Scotland politics

Nicola Sturgeon: EU remain vote 'top priority'

Nicola Sturgeon Image copyright Reuters

Securing a vote to stay in the EU will be "front and centre" of the new Scottish government's early priorities, Nicola Sturgeon has told her party.

The first minister said her cabinet will also begin "laying the groundwork" for delivering their election manifesto pledges over the next Parliament.

It came after Willie Rennie accused the SNP of taking Scottish votes to remain in the EU for granted.

The Scottish Lib Dem leader said that could risk a growth in the leave vote.

Ms Sturgeon was addressing the party's National Council in Perth, where she praised activists for helping to secure an unprecedented third term in office.

She will lead a minority government at Holyrood, having won 63 of 129 seats in the chamber, and is due to set out her next programme for government on Wednesday.

She said: "The new-look team of SNP ministers have already hit the ground running, and this week we will set out our early priorities for government - and front and centre of this will be securing Scotland's continued membership of the EU in the upcoming referendum.

"I passionately believe in the positive, progressive case for EU membership.

"The social protections and benefits that membership has given us - from maternity rights, to workers' rights, to freedom of movement - are almost so ingrained in our daily lives that it is easy to take them for granted."

Opinion polls have consistently suggested that the EU is far more popular in Scotland than it is elsewhere in the UK.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Mr Rennie stood against Ms Sturgeon for the role of first minister - receiving just five votes to Ms Sturgeon's 63

Earlier in a speech to his party members, Mr Rennie accused the SNP of making a "sloppy assumption" that Scots are firmly in favour of EU membership.

He said that Liberal Democrats across the UK were working alongside people from other parties as part of Stronger In, despite disagreeing with them on many other political issues.

"Meanwhile, the SNP has refused to join any other campaign yet have daily opinions about how the official In campaign is operating," he said.

"When the SNP are not criticising the official campaign, they are postulating about the consequences of a Brexit for Scottish independence.

"The SNP should ditch the criticism and the self-interested commentary. Instead they should work with other pro-Europeans to win the case for Remain."

Mr Rennie's comments echo those of Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale when she formally launched the Labour In for Scotland campaign earlier this month.

'Glaring contradiction'

Ms Dugdale said at the time: "If we believe that we are, as a nation in Scotland, more pro-European than our neighbours across the United Kingdom, then perhaps there's a greater responsibility on us in Scotland to make the positive case for Europe.

"I wish the SNP would do more of this because all I've heard them do so far is be really negative about how the campaign has been rather than set out the arguments from their perspective about why we should remain part of the European Union."

On Friday, Jim Sillars - a former SNP deputy leader who is campaigning in favour of Brexit - accused the party's current leadership of living in "a parallel universe" by campaigning to remain in the European Union when they want to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom.

Mr Sillars, a long-standing critic of the SNP leadership, claimed there was a "glaring contradiction" in rejecting a union of 60 million people only to embrace a union of 500 million people as he called on SNP and other independence supporters to vote for Brexit in a speech for the Scot.Leave campaign in Orkney.

Responding to Mr Sillars, an SNP spokesman said: "An independent Scotland would have a seat and a voice at the EU's top table - something we are currently denied.

"Independence and interdependence go hand in hand in the 21st century, as proven by the fact that many of the EU's member states are smaller than Scotland and many have only become independent in recent decades."

Ms Sturgeon will be in London on Monday to campaign with Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and Green MP Caroline Lucas on the "progressive case for EU membership", in a visit which will also see her meet newly-elected London Mayor Sadiq Khan to discuss areas of mutual interest.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Scottish government will propose a debate on Scotland and the EU, to make the case for a vote to remain.