Holyrood clash over constitutional 'obsessions'

Nicola Sturgeon Image copyright EPA
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon wants to hold a new referendum later this year

Much talk in Holyrood today of obsession. The taunt came from both Nationalists and Unionists, aimed at their opponents.

The Tory attack was partly personalised, targeted upon the first minister herself. According to Jackson Carlaw, independence has become a singular priority for Nicola Sturgeon.

This was, of course, part of an emerging Conservative narrative to the effect that Ms Sturgeon's elegantly tailored jaiket is on a shoogly nail. It was accompanied, as ever, by references to occasional internal criticism of the FM's stance.

Mr Carlaw pursued this theme at length, depicting the FM as being fated to see out the rest of her ministerial days pointlessly pursuing the cause of independence. Stuck in the past.

Instead, the Tory leader advised, Ms Sturgeon should focus upon the day job - education, the NHS, justice.

Curiously, Nicola Sturgeon seemed less than upset by this ad feminam attack. Indeed, she drew comfort from a number of sources.

Firstly, that her party had repeatedly outpolled the Tories in Scottish elections - including, she noted, in the December contest when the Tories had placed the issue of thwarting indyref2 at the core of the discourse.

Secondly, that she regarded it as self-evident truth that decisions about Scotland's future should be in the hands of the Scottish people.

And, thirdly, because she had a few thoughts herself anent the issue of obsession. The fixation she had in mind concerned Brexit - and the Conservative Party.

The Tories, she said, had pursued Brexit - and a hard version of same - in direct contradistinction to the expressed wishes of the Scottish people.

She took this argument further, suggesting that anyone - any political party - who voted against the concept of Scottish choice, as envisaged by her party, was in effect giving a green light to the damage which she argued was an intrinsic element of Brexit.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Jackson Carlaw accused Ms Sturgeon of being hopelessly stuck on the issue of independence

However, there was another element to the Tory attack which featured to some extent in speeches by other opponents of independence.

Several speakers - notably Labour's Richard Leonard - said the first minister knew fine well there was zero prospect of an independence referendum this year.

This was, Mr Leonard argued, partly because Brexit was nowhere near done, despite the proclamations of the prime minister. It was impossible to gauge its impact at the moment.

Instead, the Labour leader argued, the FM was seeking to soothe her restless supporters. Now, Mr Leonard has had a few problems of his own with internal disquiet, not least over constitutional uncertainty.

Today's speech, rather powerfully delivered, was undoubtedly an attempt to reset his party's position on such matters. To reject indyref2 as a futile "game" while Brexit continued. To argue for "a vision of a modern 2020 home rule".

With sharp scepticism, Patrick Harvie of the Greens questioned what such a vision might produce in practice. For the Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie argued that folk were sick fed up of constitutional wrangling.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon needs to keep the independence movement motivated

This is tricky ground for Nicola Sturgeon. She yearns for independence, as do her party members and the wider Yes movement.

But she is aware of the practical obstacles in the path, not least the refusal of the UK government to grant the power to hold a statutory referendum.

Yes, she could go to court to challenge that position - but would be unlikely to win. Yes, she could consider an unofficial referendum but fears it would be a gesture to be dismissed.

However, she needs to keep the independence movement motivated, particularly within her own party ranks. Hence, the speech planned for Friday at a party rally.

To repeat a point I have made more than once, Nicola Sturgeon does not want simply to hold a referendum. She wants to win one. A real one.

More on this story