Tom Gordon

NICOLA Sturgeon’s plan to set out her ‘next steps’ on a second referendum has been knocked off course by a bitter row about flags at the Scottish Parliament.

The First Minister was accused of “not even pretending to care” about public services after her Government forced a vote to keep the European flag flying outside Holyrood after Brexit.

Opposition parties said the move showed SNP ministers were more interested in pursuing petty grievances than confronting Scotland’s problems.

Labour, the Tories and the LibDems contrasted the Government’s willingness to find extra parliamentary time to discuss flags while shying away from debates on schools, health and the police.

Despite Ms Sturgeon declaring education her ‘top priority’, the SNP has not held a Holyrood debate on the subject in two years, while little more than an hour has been given to debating Scotland’s drug deaths crisis recently.

In an unusual public rebuke, Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh also made it clear he did not welcome Holyrood’s flags policy becoming politicised.

Ms Sturgeon also faces flak today from within her own party, with former health Secretary Alex Neil urging her to change the SNP’s position on Europe.

Mr Neil says that the current plan of an independent Scotland rejoining the EU after Brexit would “be handing a gift to our Unionist opponents”.

Writing in the Herald, Mr Neil says a hard border between Scotland and England would “scupper any realistic chance” of Yes winning Indyref2.

One of the few SNP politicians to support Brexit, he says the SNP should change tack and aim to join the European Free Trade Association instead of the EU.

Ms Sturgeon has said she wants a second referendum later this year, but Boris Johnson has refused to give Holyrood the power to hold it legally.

She intends to set out her “next steps” to overcome the UK Government’s resistance on Brexit Day on Friday, though it emerged yesterday she has not yet told her cabinet what they will be.

Ms Sturgeon will today open a debate on Indyref2, asking MSPs to endorse the right of Holyrood, rather than Westminster, to decide the time of a referendum, and warn a “fundamental issue of democracy is at stake.”

She said: “This week, Scotland will be pulled out of Europe against its will and without its consent – an event which marks a significant and material change in circumstances since 2014.

“This Government has a clear mandate – to exercise the right of this country to take its future into its own hands.

“That mandate comes directly from the freely exercised will of the people, and simply cannot be ignored or denied indefinitely. There are now fundamental issues of democracy at stake. Quite simply, Scotland must have the right to choose its own future.

“It is my fervent hope and belief that Scotland will rejoin the European family of nations as an equal, independent country.”

However that showpiece debate now risks being overshadowed by a 30-minute brawl over flags before the main event.

Last week, the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB), the cross-party group which runs the Holyrood estate, agreed the 12-star European flag should no longer fly daily next to the Saltire and Union Jack outside the parliament, as Scotland would no longer be in the EU.

Instead, it would only fly on Europe Day [May 9] as a mark of solidarity.

The move angered senior SNP figures, including Brexit Secretary Michael Russell, who said it was “the wrong decision which needs to be changed”.

SNP and Greens MSPs now intend to vote to overrule the SPCB today.

In a letter to the Scottish Government, Mr Macintosh said the SPCB’s “clear desire” was not to politicise flag policy.

He said “The SPCB’s decision-making is neither politically motivated nor reflective of any partial viewpoint.

“The Corporate Body recognises entirely the sensitivity that remains over Europe, but its decision is not a political one. Our flags reflect our relationships in law.”

Tory MSP Maurice Golden said: “The SNP isn’t even pretending to care about other issues now. Valuable time in the Scottish Parliament should be used to address the very severe problems in our hospitals or the crisis engulfing our education system.

“Instead, the nationalists want to revert to the only subject they excel in – stoking up constitutional division.

“It’s completely ridiculous that the governing party of Scotland is dominating business like this on two matters which have already been decisively resolved.

“But for them this isn’t about improving Scotland’s economy or public services, or even enhancing the prospects of the population.

“It’s about playing to the independence gallery, and trying to cause a ruckus between Scotland and England in the hope it pushes up support for separation.”

Labour MSP Neil Findlay tweeted: “No Government education debate for years, no drugs debate for years, NHS debates rare as hen’s teeth but, hey, we are debating flags (I despair)”.

Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said he was disappointed that ministers “can find time to debate flags, yet not one minute can be found to debate the performance of our education system or the state of Scotland’s police service”.

The Greens said: “We cherish our relationship with our European friends and neighbours and believe the European flag should continue to be flown at the Scottish Parliament.”

Minister for parliamentary business Graeme Dey said: Mr Dey said the vote had been tabled “with a heavy heart” after the SPCB rejected a compromise of continuing to fly the flag during the Brexit transition phase.

He said: “While the corporate body is rightly non-political, there is no decision they could take on this matter, to leave the flag up or to take it down, which could not be seen as political, and therefore it is surely right that the parliament as a whole makes the decision.”

The First Minister’s official spokesman added: “Symbolism matters. In terms of EU citizens, in terms of reflecting the way Scotland as a whole voted, reflecting the way parliament as a whole has voted [on Brexit].”

Former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars yesterday accused Ms Sturgeon of misleading Yes supporters by “pretending” there would be a second referendum this year.

He said “intellectual rigour” was “sadly missing” in today’s SNP leadership, and that suggestions of an illegal referendum were “nonsense”.