Scotland politics

Who is obsessed with what in Scottish politics?

Flags outside Holyrood Image copyright PA
Image caption Scotland's future relations with both the UK and the EU are frequent topics of debate at Holyrood

Scottish politicians routinely accuse each other of being "obsessed" with constitutional issues, whether independence or Brexit. But who is it that actually does keep bringing up independence and Brexit?

'Referendum obsession'

"Is there any situation", asked Tory backbencher Bill Bowman this week, "in which the Scottish government will do the right thing by the Scottish people and businesses, and end its referendum obsession?"

Rising to respond for the SNP, Mike Russell observed that this turn of phrase had "animated Tory members like nothing else this afternoon".

"Indeed," he said, pivoting smoothly to another constitutional issue, "it is the Conservatives who should withdraw their obsession with the referendum."

This is a very common exchange at Holyrood. The Tories charge the SNP with being "obsessed" with independence, and the SNP hit back that the Tories are "obsessed" with Brexit.

Who's really obsessed with what? Is there a way of finding out the truth of it?

Let's try looking at it through the prism of the parliament's premier weekly rammy, questions to the first minister. Going back to the start of 2017, who brought up the constitution first in these Thursday sessions?

There's a full spreadsheet here, but some of the results are summarised below.


Image caption Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson clashed repeatedly over independence in the run-up to the 2017 election

Basically, independence came up an awful lot in the first half of 2017, but more or less dropped off the radar after the snap general election that summer.

And, yes, a lot of the time it was the Conservatives who brought it up.

In the first six months of the year alone, independence came up at FMQs 17 times. On 11 of these occasions, it was the Scottish Conservatives who did so - and on nine of them, it was leader Ruth Davidson.

The SNP, meanwhile - the party of independence, mind - volunteered the topic four times. Yes, these are questions to the first minister, but that didn't stop Nicola Sturgeon turning the conversation towards Brexit on numerous occasions.

Date: Independence brought up by: Brexit brought up by:
15/06/2017 Ruth Davidson Nicola Sturgeon
07/06/2017 Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon
01/06/2017 Willie Rennie Nicola Sturgeon
18/05/2017 Nicola Sturgeon
11/05/2017 Ruth Davidson Nicola Sturgeon
03/05/2017 Nicola Sturgeon Kenny Gibson
27/04/2017 Nicola Sturgeon Ruth Davidson
20/04/2017 Ruth Davidson Kezia Dugdale
30/03/2017 Ruth Davidson Patrick Harvie
16/03/2017 Ruth Davidson Nicola Sturgeon
09/03/2017 Ruth Davidson John Swinney
02/03/2017 Ruth Davidson Nicola Sturgeon
23/02/2017 Maurice Golden Maurice Golden
09/02/2017 Oliver Mundell Nicola Sturgeon
02/02/2017 Tom Arthur Patrick Harvie
26/01/2017 Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson
19/01/2017 Ruth Davidson Nicola Sturgeon

Now, it's true that everyone was a little bit obsessed with independence at that point. Ms Sturgeon had been building up talk of a new referendum campaign ever since the Brexit vote, culminating in her explicit call for one on 13 March, 2017.

But it appears that, if anything, the Tories were even keener than the SNP to talk independence (at least at FMQs). Week after week, even when talking about other subjects, Ms Davidson would throw in a reference to it.

It's not hard to guess why, when you look at how the party conducted its campaign in the buildup to the snap general election - opposition to independence was put front and centre at every turn. And it paid off: the Tories gained 12 seats.

But after the vote - when Ms Sturgeon "reset" her plans for a fresh referendum having lost 21 seats - the issue more or less disappeared.

Between June 2017 and the following May, Ms Davidson didn't broach the topic of independence in her exchanges with the first minister once.

Ms Sturgeon brought it up of her own accord on five occasions during that quiet period, but many months went by where there just wasn't any discussion of independence.

Instead, a different constitutional "obsession" took precedence - Brexit.


Image copyright Scottish Government
Image caption Brexit is a big issue for everyone in politics, but Nicola Sturgeon has been especially keen to bring it up at FMQs

In 2018, Brexit has come up at basically every session of FMQs, on 28 occasions so far. The SNP have accounted for 20 of them (so 71% of the total). Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie has managed four on his own, while the Greens and the Tories have had two each.

The pattern for 2017 was the same - Brexit came up at FMQs in 33 out of the 36 total sessions, and exactly two thirds of the time was the SNP who raised it (I'll do the maths for you, it's 22).

The first minister herself is quite often behind it, usually with one eye on the Conservative benches to stage right.

As with independence, this is all fairly understandable - the UK's impending departure from the EU is a pretty big deal right now. But if the Conservatives had calculated that independence was the big issue they could use to chip away at the SNP, the SNP have clearly drawn the same conclusion about the Tories and Brexit.

On either side of the general election in 2017, there was a run of ten sessions - broken only by recess and one week where leaders used their time to pay tribute to the victims of the Manchester bombing - where Ms Sturgeon personally brought up Brexit.

The technique was much the same as that employed by Ms Davidson earlier in the year. Almost no matter the topic, there would be an opening to slip in a dig about the constitution somewhere.

Date: Independence brought up by: Brexit brought up by:
21/09/2017 Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon
14/09/2017 Nicola Sturgeon
07/09/2017 Nicola Sturgeon
29/06/2017 Nicola Sturgeon
22/06/2017 Jackie Baillie Nicola Sturgeon
15/06/2017 Ruth Davidson Nicola Sturgeon
07/06/2017 Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon
01/06/2017 Willie Rennie Nicola Sturgeon
18/05/2017 Nicola Sturgeon
11/05/2017 Ruth Davidson Nicola Sturgeon

The pattern continues to this day. While other leaders like Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats and Patrick Harvie of the Greens also frequently raise the UK's impending exit from the EU, Ms Sturgeon has often either raised it herself, or had one of her backbenchers tee it up for her.

First and indeed prime ministers have always taken the chance to have their backbenchers lob them a softball if there's a particular issue they want to speak out about; it's a parliamentary staple. Very often, Ms Sturgeon uses this to

In contrast, the Tories almost never broach the subject first. Since the 2017 election, Ms Davidson has volunteered the topic just once, a figure matched since by her maternity leave stand-in, Jackson Carlaw.