First Minister's Questions: On the road to indyref two?

Nicola Sturgeon Image copyright PA
Image caption First Minister Nicola Sturgeon took part in First Minister's Questions one week ahead of polls opening

Labour's Kezia Dugdale adopted a novel approach in questioning the First Minister. One which dispensed with customary niceties. You know, waiting for the reply before pouncing with the supplementary. That sort of thing.

Adopting a mock-weary tone - actually, given these challenging times, it could have been the real thing. Anyway, adopting a tone, she described the normal run of events in the chamber at Holyrood.

She would ask a question - say about an independence referendum. The FM would duck it. Ms Dugdale would then persist - only to be met with the assertion that the people would decide.

Pleading for a shortcut, she urged the First Minister to tell the chamber - and also that wise and sensible portion of the nation watching with me on the BBC - whether the SNP planned an early rerun of the plebiscite or not.

Nicola Sturgeon sympathised, very briefly. She noted that Ms Dugdale was describing a democratic process but could understand if Labour were mildly chagrined by such matters, having seen the opinion polls.

Ms Dugdale then persisted, for real. Ms Sturgeon, she said, had indicated that a referendum only came along once in a lifetime. Did she now plan to change that?

Image caption Deputy Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale's questions focused solely on the prospects of a second referendum
Image caption Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson highlighted falling literacy levels
Image caption Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie also focused on a second independence referendum

Not at this juncture, was the answer. And quite possibly not in time for next year's Holyrood manifesto. Ms Sturgeon described the line of questioning posed by her Labour rival as "desperate" and signs of a "party in death throes".

Ms Dugdale persisted, once more. Ms Sturgeon owed it to voters right now, she argued, to indicate the direction of travel with regard to a possible referendum. The First Minister insisted once more that this UK General Election was not about independence, not about a referendum, not about a mandate for a referendum.

Then the inevitable reference to the front page of the Sun (Scottish edition, that is) where the SNP wins endorsement. In the process, Ms Sturgeon is depicted, approvingly, as Princess Leia from Star Wars.

Perhaps it was the untimely hour when I first glanced at the paper, but my immediate thought was that the FM - taut hair buns and all - was being depicted as a character from Wagner's Ring Cycle. Second Valkyrie perhaps. I half expected her to sing, plaintively, in the chamber today, deploying the potent argument that the music of the Ring Cycle is not nearly as bad as it sounds.

But, no, Star Wars it was - with Alex Salmond portrayed as Yoda and….but you can fill in the rest yourself. It is a grand game to play at home. One for all the family.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The front pages of the Scottish Sun (left) and The Sun endorsed different parties at the election

Ms Dugdale, however, was not in playful mood. Referring to Mr Salmond's apparent choice of libation, she said that - if those polls were right - then it would be pink champagne all round. Courtesy of Rupert Murdoch. But with David Cameron cheerfully joining in the toast as the Tories benefited from Labour's discomfiture at the hands of the surging SNP.

It was a droll jibe, acerbically delivered. Only deflated slightly by the follow-up when Ms Dugdale noted that "all SNP candidates can talk about is another referendum". To date in the exchanges, all the Labour deputy had talked about was… got it. Ms Sturgeon described the challenge as "totally and utterly farcical".

Ms Dugdale persisted, once more. Jim Sillars, the former Deputy Leader of the SNP, had said that a referendum must be in the first line of the party's 2016 manifesto. Ms Sturgeon said the key word was "former". She was the current leader.

Undeterred, Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats pursued the same topic - while deliberately eschewing stagecraft. The FM could, he said, make a statement "right here" ruling out the inclusion of a referendum in next year's manifesto.

Perhaps it was his demeanour, perhaps it was because he isn't Labour, but the FM appeared to give a more detailed answer - without giving any ground.

There would have to be some change to prevailing circumstances. Otherwise there would be no proposal for a further referendum. If proposed, folk would have to endorse the party proposing it in an election. Even then, there would be a parliamentary process before such a referendum could proceed.

Parental control

Mr Rennie's reply was, also, detailed. But it could be summed up in two words. Heard it. He suggested that Scotland risked pursuing a Quebec-style neverendum.

Ms Sturgeon noted that there had indeed been two referendums in Quebec. But they had been 15 years apart, with the second taking place some 20 years ago. Scarcely, she suggested, an endless process.

(Actually, there was a third referendum in Quebec. In 1919. On prohibition. I await the courageous Scottish political leader who suggests we might follow that model.)

As for the Tories, Ruth Davidson unaccountably wanted to talk about day to day policy. Perhaps that encounter with a tank had affected her balance?

Ms Davidson pursued a topic which she has made her own: the proclaimed need for radical change in school education.

The latest statistics on literacy, she said, were egregious. The previous stats on numeracy were arithmetically awful. Scotland needed schools where parents and teachers had more control, not local authorities.

Ms Sturgeon promised action - while insisting there was much in Scottish education which merited celebration.

At which point, we might usefully return to the Labour/SNP exchanges. The FM disclosed that she had received a round robin email inviting her to volunteer next Thursday. As a door-knocker. For the Labour Party. Her answer? Bit busy that day.

This week's first minister's questions can be watched on demand at BBC Scotland's Democracy Live website.

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