THE three SNP leadership candidates were challenged over whether they could see Westminster shut down the Scottish Parliament during a calmer hustings on Friday night.

During the event in Edinburgh – one of the final official SNP hustings of the contest – Ash Regan, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf sought to take a different tone than the fiery TV debates seen this week.

Personal attacks were in short supply as the candidates stuck to setting out their own campaign cases.

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Referring to the Westminster government’s Section 35 order, which blocks the Gender Recognition Reform Bill from receiving royal assent, one member alluded to further attacks on Holyrood.

“At any time the Scotland Act of 1998 could be revoked by a Westminster government,” they stated.

“At a stroke, the Scottish Parliament we all fought so hard for could be coming to an end just like that. If such an event were to come to pass, what would you do about that?”

The National:

Yousaf was the only candidate to say he could envisage the UK Government shutting down the Scottish Parliament, while Forbes argued that attacks on devolution demonstrate the need to build the case for independence.

Regan said she could not imagine the Tories closing Holyrood, but acknowledged that the Government has launched “sneaky” attacks on devolution through its legislation in recent years.

“I can definitely see that Westminster is looking for all and every avenue to thwart the democratic process in Scotland, we know this,” the Edinburgh Eastern MSP told a home crowd.

“They’ve been up to all sorts of things. One of the sneakiest ones they were doing recently was the Internal Markets Act, which means many of the pieces of legislation we’re looking to use in Scotland are now coming into conflict with that. When I was a minister I was trying to pursue fireworks legislation, and even that was coming a crop with this Internal Markets Act.”

However, Regan went on: “I don’t think they would seek to close the Parliament down – I don’t think quite frankly they would get away with it,” the Edinburgh Eastern MSP told a home crowd.

The National:

“But I think that’s why … if we tread water and we’re on the defence all the time, that’s when you start to get pushed back. In my opinion, the best form of defence is attack.

Yousaf disagreed with his fellow candidate’s assessment, and suggested that not fighting back over the Section 35 block would only “embolden” the UK Government’s current strategy.

“If we cave in, if the first act of a new first minister is to cave in to that, they will come after bill after bill after bill and we just can’t allow it,” he said. “So I give you an absolute unequivocal guarantee that if I’m the first minister of Scotland I’ll stand up and I will challenge that Section 35.

“And do you know what, I’d do that if it was a bill I disagreed with. I would be the first one to defend the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament. Because if you can’t defend democracy and devolution how on Earth are people going to trust you when we’re independent.

The National:

“I slightly disagree with Ash here. I could see Westminster doing exactly as you outline because they are getting more muscular in their approach, more aggressive in their approach. And by the way if we lay down on Section 35 they will feel emboldened and empowered and that’s why it’s so important we don’t give them that opportunity.”

Forbes did not say if she believed the Government would launch such a major attack on devolution, but used her experience of working as Finance Secretary during the pandemic as an example of standing up for Scotland.

“The only defence of laws in Scotland is independence, ultimately we cannot rely long term on a UK government to respect devolution,” she told the audience.

“I will fight harder than anyone when it comes to defending Scotland’s rights.

The National:

“I am one of the few people that had to go head to head with Rishi Sunak on a regular basis during Covid. Won most of the time, didn’t always win. But the point is I never stopped standing up for Scotland when it came to what is rightly Scotland’s in terms of the funding and the financial position. It’s why I’m in politics. But I do want to say, and I think … if the only route to defending Section 35 is going to court then I’ll go to court.

“But I’d far rather we didn’t just focus on defending devolution, we focus on making the case for independence. Independence can’t just be an abstract constitution term, it’s got to be real for people.”

The next hustings will take place in Glasgow at 1pm on Saturday, before candidates take part in The National/SNP TUG hustings from 5pm.

The final hustings will be held on Sunday in Aberdeen from 1pm, before further TV debates are held next week.