SNP leadership contest: Candidates clash over independence in first hustings

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SNP leadership contenders clashed over the strategy to achieve independence in the first hustings event of the campaign which will determine who becomes the next First Minister of Scotland.

The hustings event in Cumbernauld was initially set to be held in private to allow a “safe space” from members, with members of the press locked out. However, the SNP eventually u-turned partially, allowing a livestream and one journalist entry to the room.

It covered topics as broad as the media’s supposed ‘misinformation’ campaign against Scottish independence to the Scottish NHS and the economy, and saw the three candidates draw lines in the sand between each other.

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Humza Yousaf, the health secretary, made his pitch around his experience in government and the delivery of a progressive agenda in Scotland, while Kate Forbes, the finance secretary, centred around growing the economy to eradicate poverty and a renewed urgency with independence.

Humza Yousaf (right) taking part in the first SNP leadership hustings in Cumbernauld.Humza Yousaf (right) taking part in the first SNP leadership hustings in Cumbernauld.
Humza Yousaf (right) taking part in the first SNP leadership hustings in Cumbernauld.

Ash Regan, the former minister and gender rebel, positioned herself as the change candidate, at odds with swathes of established SNP policy such as rejoining the European Union and challenging the Section 35 order around the gender recognition reform bill.

Central to the debate, however, was the three candidate’s strategies for independence, with Ms Forbes outlining that the SNP would fight the next general election with independence “front and centre” of the campaign.

This, she said, would see the party fight for the right to hold a referendum within three months of the election result.

Staking her campaign on the pledge, Ms Forbes also committed to publishing an independence strategy plan setting out the policy decisions which would be made in the first 10 years of an independent Scotland.

She said: “There is no reason why Scotland cannot be one of the wealthiest countries in the world, not as an end in itself, but so that we can eradicate the blight that is poverty.”

Mr Yousaf, widely considered the continuity candidate and the choice of the existing SNP leadership, attempted to make it clear from the outset that he is his “own person” best placed, however, to build on the “legacy” of Nicola Sturgeon.

His record of delivery, he said, in some of government’s toughest jobs, alongside a commitment to retain the party’s “progressive agenda” and a determination to be the “first activist” as well as the “first minister”

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In answer to a question attacking the media, Mr Yousaf said that the party must be “absolutely countering some of the drivel” from opposition parties and “parts of the media”, stating that the SNP should set up a “rebuttal unit” to counter “disinformation” around independence.

Pledging a regional assembly and a party-wide discussion on what comes next for the party in terms of the strategy for achieving independence, the health secretary also said the party should “evangelise” why Scotland needs independence.

He said: “I don’t want to just be First Minister, I want to be the first activist with you, chapping those doors, pounding those pavements, looking in the whites of the eyes of people and persuading them of why we need our independence.

"If we do that with conviction, with our progressive agenda, as a socially just independent Scotland, I promise you our independence will come.”

Ms Regan repeated her calls for a ‘voter empowerment mechanism’ at all elections from now on which, she said, would eventually pressure the UK Government to enter negotiations. She also opaquely referred to the Wee Blue Book, written by the controversial blogger, Wings Over Scotland ahead of the 2014 referendum, as a potential way to challenge the press.

She said: “Under my leadership we will re-establish our track record, reform our team, and we will reiterate the vision of an independent country with parity of esteem in the world.”

“Independence is the immediate priority for Scotland. We can’t afford to wait any longer, and it is time for Scotland to take control of its own destiny” she added.

Following a question on whether people of faith could ever hold the highest office in Scotland, Ms Forbes – who came under fire for her statements that she would vote against equal marriage – admitted she had “learned a lot” since the start of the leadership election.

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She said: “There are things that I have phrased or that I have framed that I could have done better."

However, Mr Yousaf said it was important for any First Minister to not legislate based on their religion.

In a clear swipe at his closest rival, he said: “For me my faith has not been the basis of legislation, of how I make policy.

"What I have got to do as a legislator and a policy maker is not just look at what my personal faith is or what my religion says, but what is in the best interests of society as a whole.

"Our job as leader of the SNP, whoever gets it, will be to grow support for independence. It is so so important that whoever is First Minister...whoever you are, you can look the First Minister in the eye and you can have confidence that they will not only protect your rights, that they will not only tolerate you, but that they will celebrate you and advance your rights where they possibly can.”

There was also a clear dividing line on what to do next in regards to the Gender Recognition Reform bill and whether the Scottish Government should challenge the Section 35 order from the UK Government which has effectively killed the legislation.

Ms Regan said the government would “lose” a court case if it was fought and would, in effect, waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer pounds.

However, Mr Yousaf said defending legislation passed in Holyrood was a point of principle for any nationalist, while Ms Forbes said solving the problems with the legislation was something the government could do on its own, without discussion with the UK Government.

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