IT was the first time in this election campaign that Scotland’s political party leaders had faced each other in debate.

And last night’s gathering highlighted the Tories’ obsession with an independence referendum – and Nicola Sturgeon’s determination that she would not be railroaded by them.

The leaders – Sturgeon, Lorna Slater, Anas Sarwar, Willie Rennie and Douglas Ross – were each given a 45-second opening statement and all focused on Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic.

Ross went on to lower the tone with his contribution, in which he also chose to attack the SNP, accusing them of wanting to “take us through another divisive independence referendum”.

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In response to an audience question about indyref2, Slater, the Scottish Greens co-leader, told Ross: “I think it’s really interesting that around the room, we hear people who are in favour of the Union not actually arguing for the Union, but instead, arguing that the people of Scotland shouldn’t have the right to choose, even the questions about timing and about recovering.

“During Covid recovery, who do we want making the decisions? Do we want Boris Johnson, a government we didn’t elect, making those decisions, or do we want those decisions for our recovery made in Scotland by a government we’ve elected?

“It’s not unreasonable, the Scottish Greens would support a referendum in this term of Parliament, because we think decisions about Scotland should be made by the Scottish people.”

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Sturgeon said her focus was on making sure the country recovers from Covid, and she said it was working.

“Let me be clear, I think everybody knows my view that we shouldn’t leave our future in the hands of governments that we don’t vote for, that we should take our future into our own hands, but that will come when we are out of this crisis because it is important to the rebuilding exercise.

“Right now, the focus is on getting through the pandemic. Going back to Janie’s question about retail, because of the efforts of everybody across the country, because of the amazing efforts of our vaccination teams in every part of Scotland right now, we will begin to reopen retail services from Monday next week, hopefully we’ll see retail open completely at the end of April, and then we will see a more substantial reopening of our economy.”

Sturgeon said that was all possible because of the focus, not just of government, but of people right across the country.

And she reminded the audience of the 2008 financial crash and the ensuing recession: “That’s what happens to you when you allow decisions to be taken for you by others.

“So in the fullness of time, when we’re out of this crisis, and thinking about these things, who’s best to take the decisions about the future of Scotland is not a distraction from our recovery. It’s essential to making sure that the recovery is the one we want, and we’re rebuilding the country that we want it to be rebuilt. But nobody should be in any doubt about where my focus lies, just as it has every single day of the past year, as long as we are in this pandemic.” Sturgeon said she would let other people decide where her focus has been over the past year.

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“People have seen me literally every single day lead the country’s fight against Covid and I have literally spent almost every waking moment doing that.”

She added: “I’ve spent today not on the campaign trail, but in the Scottish Government headquarters talking over with my clinical advisers, making sure we’re continuing to try to take all of the right decisions. Recovery is not a neutral thing.

“So long as so many of the decisions lies in the hands of Boris Johnson and Westminster, that often the people of Scotland haven’t voted for, then the danger is we take the wrong decisions and go in the wrong direction just as we’ve been dragged out of the EU against our will.”