Scotland’s party leaders clashed on the issues of independence and Brexit immediately as the first TV debate of the election north of the border got under way.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was first to speak, calling on voters to back her SNP to protect Scotland – which voted to stay part of the European Union in 2016 – from an “extreme Brexit”.
She also argued supporting the SNP would “protect Scotland’s right to make our own decisions” with regard to an independence referendum.
Tories, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Ukip all oppose a second independence referendum, with Prime Minister Theresa May having said recently that a fresh ballot should not take place until there is “public consent” for it and until the Brexit process has played out.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson claimed the General Election was a “massive opportunity” which gave Scotland “the chance to move on from the divisions of the past”.
The Tory MSP said: “Nicola Sturgeon said she is putting independence at the heart of her campaign – I say enough. Fix our schools, don’t split up our country. Champion our businesses, don’t put a border at Berwick.”
She told viewers watching the BBC debate: “At this election we can send the SNP a message they can’t ignore and with your help we can stop them and in so doing we can get back to the issues that really matter.”
Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, said despite Scots having voted against independence and Brexit in 2014 and 2016 respectively, “what we’ve got is hard Brexit and the SNP hellbent on a second independence referendum”.
She said: “I want a Labour government, but if the polls are right the Tories will be back and they will be more destructive than ever before.
“So who do you want to stand up to the Tories? Labour MPs who understand your life because they’ve lived or SNP MPs who will use every bit of Tory cruelty to exploit the case for independence.
“You can reject the Tories and a second independence referendum by voting Labour on June 8.”
But the First Minister told Scots: “You can choose MPs who will do what Theresa May wants or SNP MPs who will stand up for Scotland.”
She said representatives from her party are vital at Westminster to “keep a Tory government in check – a Tory government we know from long experience will not have Scotland’s best interests at heart”.
The SNP leader said: “A vote for the SNP will back our plans to end the Tory cuts that are holding our economy back, damaging our public services and putting more people into poverty.
“A vote for the SNP will strengthen Scotland’s hand against an extreme Brexit and a vote for the SNP will protect Scotland’s right to make our own decisions.”
Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said the June 8 vote was the chance to “build a brighter future” and to “turn away from another divisive referendum and a damaging hard Brexit”.
He claimed: “In so many seats across the country it is a straight choice between the Liberal Democrats and the SNP.
“We can win those seats, we can change the direction of the country, we can have that brighter future.”
Meanwhile Scottish Green co-convener Patrick Harvie warned social and environmental rights that were guaranteed in the EU would be “in the hands of a hard right Tory government hellbent on a bonfire of the regulations”.
He added: “We also need to oppose their cuts agenda, it’s destroying people’s lives, but it’s also a failure to invest in the sustainable future our economy needs.”
Ukip’s Scottish leader David Coburn used his opening statement to make the case for leaving the European Union.
He said: “Ukip is the party of Brexit. We must elect Ukip to the Commons to ensure Brexit means exit.”
He also stressed: “Ukip is the party of the British Union – we are completely opposed to a second Scottish independence referendum.”
In a heated exchange, Nicola Sturgeon accused the Scottish Conservative leader of using independence as a smokescreen for “toxic” policies.
She said: “[Ruth Davidson] says I talk about nothing else, the truth is she talks so much about independence that I can’t get a word in edgeways about it.
“Ruth Davidson is using independence as a smokescreen in this campaign because she knows the Tory record and Tory policies are toxic.”
Ruth Davidson urged the SNP leader to ditch plans for a second independence referendum.
She said: “The country said ‘No’ and you won’t listen to them.”
Kezia Dugdale also urged the SNP leader to drop the independence referendum.
She said: “We answered the question in 2014. We spent two-and-a-half years debating and we said ‘No’. People want to move on from that.”
Willie Rennie said the SNP’s focus is “always independence”.
He said: “It took 44 days for Nicola Sturgeon to publish her Bill on another independence referendum. It took 15 months for them to write their mental health strategy.
“It took two years for us to persuade them to expand nursery education for two-year-olds and it took six years for us to persuade them about a pupil premium.
“For the SNP its always, always about independence. Today Brexit is the excuse, every other day it could be any other excuse at all.
“They need to cancel this second divisive independence referendum because it’s dividing our country and setting us back.”